The Finitude of Winter

I was lied to as a child. In my elementary school classroom, my teacher displayed on the wall a large wheel with twelve smaller circles orbiting the center, each representing a month of the year. They were separated in groups of three, each group comprising a season accordingly:
• Summer: June, July, August
• Autumn: September, October, November
• Winter: December, January, February
• Spring: March, April, May

I blame this chart for my consistent detestation of March. By the end of February every year, I mistakenly believe that spring is just around the corner. I get up each morning, hoping for the chance that there might not be frost on my window, that I might not have to worry about sliding around on the ice in my light-as-Styrofoam car, and that my ears might not hurt as they slowly thaw when I enter the JSFB; yet day after day, I am always disappointed. Thankfully, in the past year or so, BYU’s semester schedule has finally mitigated my expectations to some degree. I now view the months laid out in the following manner:
• Summer: May, June, July, August
• Autumn: September, October, November, half of December
• Winter: the happy half of December, and the brutal eternity that is January, February, March, March (I’m putting this one in twice since it seems twice as long), and April 1-28
• Spring: April 29-30

Okay, am I being a bit dramatic? I’ll acquiesce enough to say “maybe.” I really do not know what to do with this time of year. It’s not even that I simply dislike the cold; the cold months before January seem fine. In fact, since October, we’ve had three installments of this blog celebrating the festivals and holidays that we celebrate during the colder months and what they might mean (I myself discussed Halloween and creativity, Marie Orton remarked on Christmas and seeking in our vulnerability, and just two weeks ago, Garrett May spoke about New Years’ traditions and innovations). Yet once all of the holidays are over, the finitude of winter seems to set in and linger. How do and should we conceptualize it? And more importantly, how might we navigate our lives through it?

I’m not the first one who has felt strongly about the drawn out feeling of winter. Plenty of writers have concentrated on the long haul of bitter cold rather than the comforting warmth of the hearth. Professor Orton brought up a T. S. Eliot poem in her December post that seems to represent one of these positions. Forgive me for repeating part of that poem, “Journey of the Magi”:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.1

After the pomp and circumstance, after the jovial familial gatherings, after the new beginnings and the setting of resolutions, what is there? According to Eliot: death and bitter agony. We know, after embarking upon a new beginning, that there is no returning to the old one. The year is dying, Tennyson might say, and it isn’t always so easy to let it die.So in addition to my juvenile disappointment when spring doesn’t commence on March 1st, and along with the darkness and coldness of the season, we seem to be left with the burden of a new life before us, without hope of returning to the safety of where we’ve been. The gravity of emerging changes haunts the expiry of winter.

However, while Eliot doesn’t seem to offer a remedy for this feeling (at least not in this poem), others have ventured farther into this territory. Robert Frost, I think, offers one possible method for how to deal with this time of year. In his “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” his narrator pauses by the forest on his way into town. After taking in the scenery on “the darkest evening of the year,” he speaks these well-known words:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.3

Although the woods are longingly calling for him to join them—although he is tempted (in one reading) to let himself be subsumed into the dying year—he yet has obligations. Perhaps according to Frost, we just have to keep moving when things seem to stand still. I’m not opposed to this answer. It could be that there really are times in our lives when we find ourselves devoid of a measure of light and that we have to just keep moving to reach something on the other side. Yet I don’t know if obligations alone are always enough to motivate us to get through the dark of winter. And I can’t let this blog post end without offering perhaps a bit more of an optimistic approach.

Last semester, I was privileged to be able to work with Professor Leslee Thorne-Murphy on a Victorian Christmas Literature class. In that class, we read winter literature in multiple genres from various publications (among them Eliot’s and Tennyson’s referenced poems above). These readings converged to create an intriguing blend of nostalgia, devotion, social inequality, and gothic horror. The latter were perhaps the most surprising to all of us in the class. Yet after that initial shock we soon came to learn that in the coldness of winter, as family and friends would gather around the fire, they would tell stories—many of these were rich fantasy tales told to children, but others represented a firm tradition of ghost stories rooted in midwinter myth.

I, for one, was particularly fascinated by how often these phantom elements would blend with religious themes in order to create devotional narratives. For instance, in Thomas Hardy’s “A Christmas Ghost Story,” a phantom “mouldering solider” pines for the long-promised peace of Christ’s offering.Out of the cold and darkness manifesting itself through ghost stories, then, a hope for Christianity and Christian living sometimes seems emergent. How can this mood possibly inhabit the long, cold, dead months of January through April?

Our own Scott Miller, Dean of the College of Humanities, offered a brilliant answer to this question in his BYU Devotional address last semester, using the following passage from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” to do so (this poem was published thirteen years after the “Journey of the Magi” poem quoted earlier):

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.5

After quoting this piece, Dean Miller explained: “Eliot suggests that ‘the darkness of God’ is not an empty void but rather a place of possibility, a brooding space in which endless opportunities line up, like being in a darkened theater waiting for the next act of a play. Our spiritual quest in life involves a series of journeys between zones of light and darkness.”

After months full of festival have passed, after endings and new beginnings and maybe even some waning resolutions, after decorations have come off the walls or are still yet holding on—perhaps denying the inevitable progression of the finite season—after all this, might there still be something sublime left over for the last few months of winter? Might this feeling of finitude be an opportunity to gather with friends and family, to share stories of heroes and ghosts alike? Could we use the supposedly stagnant times in our lives to develop a new relationship to the divine that makes sense of both light and darkness, movement and stillness?

I really hope so, because March is right around the corner.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.


[1] Eliot, T. S. “Journey of the Magi.The Poetry Archive, https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi.

[2] Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Poets.Org, https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/memoriam-ring-out-wild-bells.

[3] Frost, Robert. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42891/stopping-by-woods-on-a-snowy-evening.

[4] Hardy, Thomas. “A Christmas Ghost Story.” Poem Hunter, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-christmas-ghost-story/.

[5] Eliot, T. S. “East Coker.” Four Quartets, Mariner Books, Boston, New York, 1971, p. 27.

[6] Miller, J. Scott. “Humble Uncertainty.” BYU Devotional Address, 2 Oct 2018, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/j-scott-miller_humble-uncertainty/.

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