Notes on the poem “Summer and Winter”

Yesterday’s poem, titled “Summer and Winter,” might have reminded readers of a couple of famous poems: Gerard Manly Hopkins, “Spring and Fall” (written in 1880 but not published until 1918), and William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” (the title of a book of poems published in 1923).

The first poem in “Spring and All” (the poems are numbered, not titled) begins: “By the road to the contagious hospital.” Williams was a doctor (Hopkins was a Jesuit priest). Williams’s poem seems so much more modern than the Hopkins. Note how he has copied his title from Hopkins but has dropped the F – Fall becomes All. For Williams, the fall of man is countered, or balanced, by his ability to visit the sick, while for Hopkins, fall is “the blight man was born for.” Hopkins, of course, concerned with spiritual fall, and Williams with physical fall.

Williams maintains the serious theme, but somehow manages to forge a more positive, if not hopeful outlook. On the contrary, “Sorrow’s springs are the same,” Hopkins says. That we can’t hold to a present (Hopkins wrote his poem “to a young child”) – it hides a seed of despair even as the happy feeling of spring stirs us to song. We can’t seem to completely enjoy something we know isn’t going to last. One reason the Williams poem might seem so modern is its reminder today of how contagious contagions remain. The Williams poem came from his experience doctoring those sick with the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920.

Weather is an outcome of the season (to put it in business plan terms). And we are today reminded of the weather and the season absurdly often, via weather apps, news breaks and warnings, prolific pics of the most recent storm catastrophe. It’s hard to take it easy, roll with the breezes, feel the cold as it feels good to remember just three or four months ago we were crazily cranking the AC units to high modes and the fans in the house sounded like jet airplane engines.

And the extreme weather conditions are often today attributed to the global warming crisis, about which some say we are now too late to do anything about reversing the trends. No wonder, like Hopkins, we feel the fall so hard and desperate, and, like Williams, we feel infected by the weather, sickened by it, rather than feeling invigorated or simply challenged to meet it head on:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thun-der,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Act 3, Scene 2.

Wouldn’t it be something to hear your nightly television news weather person to wax similarly throughout the forecast.

What we might often feel, whatever the season, happily warm or shaking cold, is the impermanence of it all. That feeling creates impatience, anxiety and worry, and even depression. Though to stop, to hold still, can mean only one thing. It’s the constant motion we might enjoy, knowing otherwise can only mean to be becalmed, rendered motionless, on the open sea – now that would be cause to feel misery.

And we do find resilience, hardiness, in every season, and within ourselves, the coping thermostat self-modulates. But we need to recognize the symptoms. Then we know how to dress, how to handle, the cold, the heat, the blowing winds. All around the world we see evidence of our ability to withstand, to make it through, to celebrate the season. The signs of depression, like the signs of impending doom of a gloomy weather forecast, can be met with Lear’s mad outcry – it’s ironic, isn’t it? In any event, if we can sense and identify, we can control and change the temperature of our close environment.

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