It’s December and winter is definitely on the way. Heavy snow has already been causing chaos in the USA, and in the UK we are bracing ourselves for violent storms. In Stratford the ways are certainly foul with mud and the river has been swollen. The last of the leaves have been clinging damply to the trees. I always enjoy being able to see the branches of the trees against the sky, and walking through fallen leaves has been shown to boost our mood.
As the days get shorter, the old year is dying to be reborn after the festivals of the winter solstice. In Sonnet 97 Shakespeare describes the negative aspect of this time of year:
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
In As You Like It Rosalind suggests “men are April when they woo, December when they wed”.
But there’s another side to December too: not just “limping” and “ragged”, but “rough”, “angry” and “wrathful” too. Thomas Tusser wrote about activities appropriate to each month in his 1580 book Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, and his descriptions of December are dominated by the weather, with “Hyems boisterous blasts, and bitter cold”, and “At Christmas the hardness of winter doth rage”. For Shakespeare in Sonnet 13 “the stormy gusts of winter’s day /And barren rage of death’s eternal cold” are challenges to humans, requiring an active response. Sure enough, in mid-December the weather in the UK is set to turn aggressively windy though the midlands will miss the worst of it.
The banished Duke in As You Like It the banished Duke finds there’s real honesty about winter weather compared with the smoothness of life at court.
as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘
This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
One of the songs also suggests that winter weather can be enjoyed:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot;
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend rememb’red not.
And at the end of King John, the poisoned and dying king pleads for the coldness of winter to relieve his burning pain:
Poison’d,—ill fare—dead, forsook, cast off:
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much,
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait
And so ingrateful, you deny me that.
Winter doesn’t have to be all bad. In As You Like It again, old Adam, surely one of Shakespeare’s best-loved minor characters, and said to be a part he wrote for himself, describes how “my age is as a lusty winter,/Frosty, but kindly.” Let’s hope there will be some kindness in the weather this winter.