Winter’s Tale

January 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, our Monday night essay. Roger Rosenblatt on how writers see winter.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: W. H. Auden wrote in the elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” that he disappeared in the dead of winter. Winter is almost always written about as the season of the dead, a climatic mausoleum of human experience in which one life drops its temperature, is stripped of its foliage, warmth, and color, and all is reduced to a hard, cold white.

Ice: the word defines the season. Ice, sleet, snow, freeze, wind, child, cold, frost, monosyllables of expression as if it would take too much effort for the lungs to expel the breath necessary for fancier language. Everything is abbreviated in winter, concentrated to the bare essentials, shorn, exposed, chilled to the bone. No leaves, no frills. Writers like that.

One sure sign of just how bleak these few months are is that optimism is expressed in acts of opposition or anticipation of winter’s being over. In February, we entrust a ground hog in Pennsylvania to determine if the freeze will be prolonged. “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” asked Keats. You bet it can. The entire nature of winter is a study of hardship. For every poet who attempts to find some faint cheer at being snowbound, there are a hundred who head straight for the worst of it, eagerly making something of nothing.

Winter is good for writers. It makes them sorrowful, desperate, afraid honest, clear, despairing. Writers love that. It has been especially good for Russian writers, who use the season to lay bare the wintry Russian soul. Who is that character traipsing over the polar waste of his perpetual unhappiness? Dr. Zhivago, of course, or is it Anna Karenina? Or is it that crazy American, John Reed, played Warren Beatty, stomping over the ice of the czars, searching for the thaw of revolution, which turned out to be ice again? The winter palace, Russia, for the exposure of struggle, nothing compares with the Russian winter, unless it is the English winter of Dickens, or the American Northwest winter of Jack London, or the New England winter of Robert Frost–Frost–that name. Now there was a bit of luck for a poet whose territory was the “Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Wallace Stevens’ “Snowman,” this fine new novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

The thing about winter and writers is that the season discloses, it discloses hidden houses and roads that look different dressed up in summer. It discloses people the same way. The dead of winter is really the life of winter, but it is the vulnerable and naked life, life at the core. You see it in the winter faces in the streets, a tightening in the skin about the skull as the heart gets down to the basics. Nothing reminds us of mortality like winter. It is useful for that. Nothing reminds us as much of what is lost and irretrievable, or of what we miss and treasure. “Absence, absence,” wrote John Crowe Ransom. “Ice, ice,” wrote Robert Lowell. Open season. There it is–plain as daylight–a lead-colored sky or a frozen field or a bare tree or the bare branch of a bare tree, extended in hard, definite assured perpetuity, like a line of poetry, or a line of prose. (Theme from “Dr. Zhivago”)

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.