Poet’s Pen: Winter Gallery

Elizabeth Weir, Co-Editor

“What is it about winter that turns people into poets?” — Phoenix Wright (“Ace Attorney”)

Winter is perhaps the most inspiring season of the year: the way the snow gently blankets every surface; the way the sun peeks timidly from behind the clouds; the way each leafless tree branch reaches up to the empty sky. There is something about the silence, the quiet beauty hiding in the barren landscape, that draws awe from the eye of the poet. While spring and summer are bouncing with vibrancy and color, winter forces us all to slow down, and from there we begin to think, and that contemplation finds its way through pen and onto paper. Sometimes it’s an appreciation for the moment of respite, and sometimes it’s the realization of the universality of death or the hopeful anticipation of spring; winter has always inspired the reflective poet and always will.

This month, we celebrate winter. But to limit this celebration to a single poet would be a crime against the season’s vast gallery of snow-laden verse, so we will instead take a stroll through three of the most noteworthy poems written about the chilliest time of year. Each poem is preceded by a brief explanation to provide some context.


“The Snow Fairy” by Claude McKay

In 1889, the town of Sunny Ville, Jamaica, gave birth to one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay. From a young age, McKay cultivated a love for his African heritage and classic European Romantic poetry and philosophy, echoes of which resonate throughout his works. His writings are mostly known for their colorful illustrations of life in Jamaica as well as their pointed critique toward racial and socioeconomic inequities.

Here, though, is a simple poem McKay penned after moving north and experiencing the unique beauty and wonder of snow. This poem is not about social upheaval, but about snowflakes, or, as McKay dubs them, “snow-fairies.” Just as falling snow can range from a gentle sprinkle to a furious blizzard, so too are fairies tempestuous. McKay’s combination of vivid personification and relatable imagery makes for a delightful ode to the ever-unpredictable snowfall. As you read McKay’s poem, try to imagine your feelings upon seeing snow for the first time.


“Throughout the afternoon I watched them there,

Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky,

Whirling fantastic in the misty air,

Contending fierce for space supremacy.

And they flew down a mightier force at night,

As though in heaven there was revolt and riot,

And they, frail things had taken panic flight

Down to the calm earth seeking peace and quiet.

I went to bed and rose at early dawn

To see them huddled together in a heap,

Each merged into the other upon the lawn,

Worn out by the sharp struggle, fast asleep.

The sun shone brightly on them half the day,

By night they stealthily had stol’n away.”


“Now Winter Nights Enlarge” by Thomas Campion

Stepping long back in time, Campion was born in London, England, in 1567. Though one of many Renaissance poets, Campion stands out from the crowd in that he did not only believe in the intimate connection between poetry and music, but he also took it a step further and produced numerous songs entirely of his own composition. His songs would even make their way to the ear of King James; James’s lutenist, Philip Rosseter, would publish the “Book of Ayres” in 1601, for which Campion wrote the first 21 songs and introduction.

Major themes of Campion’s works include human frailty, love, and morality; this poem focuses specifically on what humans do to wile away the long and cold winter nights. Though it is four centuries old, the words are not particularly difficult; in fact, they flow in a very pleasing way to accompany the comfy winter scene Campion sets, likely so that they would match well with the merry twang of a lute. Though the poem below is not accompanied by a tune, it would make Campion’s ghost proud if you make like a medieval bard and hum something impromptu along.


“Now winter nights enlarge

The number of their hours;

And clouds their storms discharge

Upon the airy towers.

Let now the chimneys blaze

And cups o’erflow with wine,

Let well-turned words amaze

With harmony divine.

Now yellow waxen lights

Shall wait on honey love

While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights

Sleep’s leaden spells remove.


This time doth well dispense

With lovers’ long discourse;

Much speech hath some defense,

Though beauty no remorse.

All do not all things well;

Some measures comely tread,

Some knotted riddles tell,

Some poems smoothly read.

The summer hath his joys,

And winter his delights;

Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,

They shorten tedious nights.”


“Snow Day” by Billy Collins

Collins is likely the most easily recognizable of the three poets featured in our Winter Gallery. Described by the New York Times’s Bruce Weber as “the most popular poet in America,” Collins’s abundant accolades, including serving two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate in the early 2000s and absolutely labyrinthian library of published work, precede him as a poetic legend still walking on earth. His style is unintimidating and inviting, yet also poignant and witty, combining a friendly voice with relatable subject matter and unexpected depth to paint immersive images that, in the words of John Taylor, “help us feel the mystery of being alive.”

“Snow Day” in particular exemplifies this skill. The poem feels homey, like something an elementary school teacher would read aloud to the class, yet it also dips beneath the cutesy surface level to create a sentimental homage to the nostalgic snow days of the pre-Zoom past. He ends the poem on a thoughtful note, inspiring the reader to fill in the blanks with their own fond winter memories.


“Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,

and beyond these windows


the government buildings smothered,

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost

under the noiseless drift,

the paths of trains softly blocked,

the world fallen under this falling.


In a while, I will put on some boots

and step out like someone walking in water,

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,

and I will shake a laden branch

sending a cold shower down on us both.


But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.

I will make a pot of tea

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,

as glad as anyone to hear the news


that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,

the Ding-Dong School, closed.

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,

along with—some will be delighted to hear—


the Toadstool School, the Little School,

Little Sparrows Nursery School,

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,

and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.


So this is where the children hide all day,

These are the nests where they letter and draw,

where they put on their bright miniature jackets,

all darting and climbing and sliding,

all but the few girls whispering by the fence.


And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.”


Source: Poetryfoundation.org