It’s January in the northern hemisphere and we are entering the coldest part of the year. If we were to look at the mini-seasons of the traditional Japanese calendar, we would notice that we are moving into the Minor Cold and Major Cold seasons. These are the last two seasons that make up the full winter season.
These cold days of midwinter provided plenty of time for poets like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Matsuo Basho, and Kobayashi Issa to reflect on the impact of snow and ice. Let’s begin this exploration in the cold season by reading a poem by Wallace Stevens.
“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves, Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Stevens does a great job at questioning how we interact with this season. He suggests that we must have “a mind of winter/ To regard the frost” and “For the listener, who listens in the snow/ And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”. It seems like Stevens is asking us to pay attention to what is around us and ask ourselves, “What truths are held in the winter landscape?”
As we talk about this connection between snow, ice, and the human experience, we cannot skip over Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”.
“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.
This poem first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1923, and then again in Frost’s book New Hampshire. In this poem, Frost directly links our human emotions to the natural elements. Fire is desire, hatred is ice. This poem is said to be inspired by a passage in Dante’s Inferno where the “sinners were preserved in ice.”(3) It is an interesting way to contemplate the end of the world and how, if you had the chance, would you like to go.
Finally, we will shift our attention to Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa who will provide us with a few direct observations of the impact of snow and ice.
awakened at midnight by the sound of the water jar cracking from the ice -Matsuo Basho
on the tip of the Buddha's blessed nose an icicle -Kobayashi Issa
Basho and Issa capture the direct experience of ice. It can crack jars, and it can hang from our noses. But perhaps, in these short statements, there is a deeper truth. Maybe something similar to what Stevens was asking of us. To find the universal truths in the winter landscape.
- Wallace Stevens: “The Snow Man”. Poetry Foundation
- Robert Frost: “Fire and Ice”. Poetry Foundation
- Wikipedia: Fire and Ice (Poem)