D.H. Lawrence’s Poem, ‘A Winter’s Tale’

D.H. Lawrence.

We are officially four days away from winter, so why not get some winter poetry vibes queued up? This one caught my eye, not because it’s also the name of a William Shakespeare play, but because it reminded me of the Daniel Woodrell book Winter’s Bone, mostly, admittedly, because they both use the word winter, ha. But, it’s not much like the book. The book is grittier and in-your-face, whereas this poem is rather mysterious and aloof. Still, winter vibes.

The poem comes from the Englishman D.H. Lawrence, who is better known as a novelist, but also was a short-story writer, essayist, and who was first published as a poet. His poems mostly dealt with the natural world, according to the Academy of American Poets. Lawrence was active around the turn of the 20th century, and along the lines of what I said above, the AAP says that Lawrence believed in writing poetry that was “stark, immediate and true to the mysterious inner force which motivated it.” I would say that sentiment is captured by the poem of his I’m analyzing today.

I’m particularly fascinated by the story of his 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was the source of a censorship case. Whatever one thinks of Lawrence’s views, I would always err on the side against censorship. Scolds calling a book “obscenity,” makes me laugh. Get out of here with that. I appreciate radicals that push boundaries, and my ears perk up when I hear that they faced censorship or controversy. He also died way too young at the age of 44 from tuberculosis.

Nonetheless, the poem is, “A Winter’s Tale,” which is in the public domain, so I’ll duplicate it in full here:

Yesterday the fields were only grey with scattered snow,
And now the longest grass-leaves hardly emerge;
Yet her deep footsteps mark the snow, and go
On towards the pines at the hills’ white verge.

I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf
Obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky;
But she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half
Sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.

Why does she come so promptly, when she must know
That she’s only the nearer to the inevitable farewell;
The hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow –
Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?

First off, sometimes, I get rolling on, “What is the poet and this poem trying to tell me?” that I forget to step back and appreciate the beauty of the poem itself. As an aesthetic. As words and language and the contortion of that language into stanzas and such. There are people far smarter than I am who could break it down on that aesthetic level better, but still, I wanted to take a moment and soak in Lawrence’s beautiful writing here. For one, the opening line, where the fields were only “grey with scattered snow.” Who thinks to call anything snow is on grey? I get that it’s a scattering at that point, but everyone thinks white, or I suppose, if you’re being crass, yellow (or maybe poetic? the reflection of the sun on the snow or some such). That sets the tone, aesthetically, for what is an image-rich poem. It also conveys that something sad is afoot. Because, at this juncture, if there is some snow on the fields, wouldn’t the fields be dead grass, so brown-ish or even still smatterings of green instead of grey? But grey conveys that sadness.

And it’s a rather suffocating snow, as it buries even the “longest grass-leaves.” Then we get to the mysterious “she,” which at that point, the poem reminds me of Emily Brontë’s poem, “Spellbound,” I reviewed back in October. Both poems play on the idea of a cold environment and something coming.

Agh, and back to the aesthetic, I love, “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky.” If I can write a sentence as lovely, beautiful and haunting one day, I’ll die a happy man.

So, here’s the question, is the “she” here a real she or a personified she? It seems like the former, right? Because it’s someone moving through space and time, waiting, impatient, cold and sobbing. But also, the time factor is interesting. So, we know yesterday the snow was little, but “now” it’s covered the longest grass-leaves. We also know that she’s come promptly, too promptly, even. The orientation of her coming too soon, but also having to wait is an interesting turnaround.

Is this a break-up poem? Is that what’s going on here? Has she come to be told by the author that he’s leaving her? After all, she’s “only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” That seems rather explicit. But why is he surprised that she’s come at all? If it is a break-up, he seems reluctant to do it, given his footsteps are slow. Or maybe forlorn is the better word.

Overall, I would settle on this being a break-up poem set in a wintry landscape. It almost has a fairy-tale feel to it, but a rather rotten connotation since it’s something sad. Sometimes I gravitate toward a poem because of what it’s saying, and sometimes I gravitate toward a poem because of how it’s saying it. And I think Lawrence’s here falls into that second category. It wows me on a visceral, aesthetic level more than anything.

What do you make of it?

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