Winter Eclogue

Pieter Breughel, The Numbering at Bethlehem (1566)

[An essay on winter and ageing from a few years back for my readers in the northern hemisphere. Rug up, enjoy. (Unfortunately WordPress won’t transfer the endnotes from the original essay for some reason. Not to worry.)]

Winter Eclogue

(…) vivere tota vita discendum est et, quod magis fortasse miraberis, tota vita discendum est mori.
(One has to learn to live throughout life, and, which might surprise you even more, throughout life learn to die).
– Seneca, De brevitate vitae (c. 49 CE)

It is as though all of life is a spiral searching its own core, and in the center is a peace that encompasses all and asks nothing further.
– Wilson van Dusen, The Natural Depth In Man, p.59

(…) ‘like a frigate, I am filled with a thousand souls’ (Melville) – life is always a solo voyage in a vessel whose bottom is guaranteed to rust away eventually and may, in fact, fall out at any moment.
– Edwin S. Shneidman, Deaths Of Man,,p. 63

Age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
– H.W. Longfellow, 1874

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
– Shakespeare, As You Like It

Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the Holy Teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
The Emperor said, “Who is this confronting me?”
Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”
– In: Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier. The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan), p. 35

Winter Eclogue

And so, resting, in winter. Night coming on now
a cold westerly across the dam’s dark water
(the fresh cleanness of this cutting air)

gather it all up now as the wind sighs
through the fine hair of the casuarinas:
the last apples, Chinese gooseberries, persimmons
the fat sun stored on moist black boughs
a mellow silence upholds like water
the wine fermented beginning to settle
and clear, the cellar full
of beautifully imperfect fruit,
nobbly root crops nourishing
the year’s inward turning
time of star-cold soil
preparing for another spring

This written, reading, in winter, it is a strange kind of warm pleasure to later recognize Virgil’s similarity of response. It is a mellow-wine-by-the-fire kind of pleasure to be in touch with a mentor, an elder, a kindred spirit over two thousand years, as gusts of the cold westerlies sigh around the house here at ‘Gundungurra’ in Bundanoon. Virgil was a poet whom Dante made his guide to the sinister Underworld of his midlife crisis. A poet born in the autumn of 70 BCE in a country ditch to the master’s daughter who had married beneath her station. This poor man had worked hard and prospered, as then did his poet son who, although he became rich and famous and owned several houses, was simultaneously ‘always close to the soil’ and yet a wanderer whose first and last poems both deal with ‘weary exiles travelling slowly through a hostile world in search of a home.’ What can it mean to resonate with a poet across the millennia? Such existential ambivalence, that certain being-at-home in a place and yet, finally, inwardly, utterly, never completely ‘at home…’

The following passage is found in the first book of his eminently practical treatise on agriculture, the Georgics (37-30 BCE). He is perhaps one of the first poets to establish the winter trope of cool climate poetics, that specific notion of ‘winter cheer’ unknown to hotter regions: winter as a ‘lazy’ resting time, a gleaning and gathering-in time, an enjoyment of the worked-for harvest, a time of turning inwards, a sense of arriving home, an inner, warm active time within the outer coldness.

(…) Hiems ignava colono.
frigoribus parto agricoloae plerumque fruuntur
mutuaque inter se laeti convivia curant.
invitat genialis hiems curasque resolvit,
ceu pressae cum iam portum tetigere carinae,
puppibus et laeti nautae imposuere coronas.

(Winter is the farmer’s lazy time.
In this chill time farmers enjoy their gains,
And feast together in merry companies.
Winter cheer invites, dispelling care;
As when, the laden ships have at last reached harbour
And their happy crews crowned the sterns with garlands.)

And, of course, this version of the winter trope immediately resonates with its specific figurative dimension. Enjoying the ripe fruit of one’s ‘gains’, bringing in and feasting on one’s harvest, the eventide home and hearth, sailing back thankfully into one’s home harbour well-laden with useful goods from distant shores – all these are of course also possible metaphors of an ideal (now possibly irremediably bucolic?) old age. Or at least they often were in societies less phobic about facing endings than this unravelling bourgeois society we live in. Even for anti-Pollyanna Voltaire in the 18th century for example, it is only for the ignorant that old age is merely ‘winter’, for the cognoscenti it is a ‘grape harvest’ and ‘wine making’.

Twentieth century German-Jewish ‘philosopher of hope’ Ernst Bloch extends this Voltairean metaphor further: old age, like every other phase of life, displays possible specific gains that may compensate for the losses and leave-takings of the previous phase. In his view, ‘youth’ is not excluded from old age but, ideally, integrated, fermented as it were, like the continued ageing that occurs with good wine in the bottle: the nostalgia for youth loses its painfulness through a close, mature contact with what is coming, a contact expressed in an achieved sense of security, simplicity and meaningfulness.

Yet this contact with ‘what is coming’ may, of course, also be precisely the problem. ‘Winter cheer’ is not achieved by simply denying or negating the harsher realities. The above cosy passage of Virgil’s then slowly but surely moves on into those other, colder and harder, realities of winter.

sed tamen et quernas glandes tum stringere tempus
et lauri bacas oleamque cruentaque myrta,
tum gruibus pedicas et retia ponere cervis
auritosque sequi lepores, tum figere dammas
stuppea torquentem Balearis verbera fundae,
cum nix alta iacet, glaciem cum flumina trudunt.

(Yet now is the time to gather acorns, bay berries, olives
And blood-red myrtle, to set the snares for cranes
And nets for stags, and chase the long-eared hare,
To slay the doe, whirling the hemp thong
Of a Balearic sling, while the snow lies deep
And rivers roll down their ice).

No warm winter cheer without a sense of the stark and cold reality it is embedded within: the need to survive, to kill other creatures for food and stay alive under the harsh conditions of winter. For Virgil, the life-giving rivers now rolling down their threatening ice would seem to have the last word. More long-lived and universal than the notion of winter cheer is of course its contrasting trope of decay, destruction, desolation, descent, darkness, death. One of Shakespeare’s much anthologised sonnets, containing the quatrain

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

may subtly echo right back to ninth century Anglo-Saxon elegies of loss. From the wonderful

Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.

of The Ruin to the Wanderer’s and Seafarer’s wintry elegies of exile in which the ‘victory of winter, hail, and night ‒ the agents of Wierd [Fate/Destiny] ‒ is complete’ :

And storms now strike against these stony slopes.
The falling tempest binds in winter’s vice
The earth, and darkness comes with shades of night,
And from the north fierce hail is felt to fall
In malice against men. And all is hardship
On earth, the immutable decree of fate
Alters the world which lies beneath the heavens.

No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters; the wanderer’s beat,
cut off from kind…
hung with hoar-frost.

At this terminal time of a year, a life, at eventide, the cold north of death’s horizon may seem never far absent…Tick tock.

Anti-Masque: The Death Clock

‘This one is a little morbid but still very useful. The Death Clock is ‘the internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away’ and it is effective at the task. First, calculate your Body Mass Index by entering your height and weight. Then enter your birth date, sex, personality ‘mode’ (such as pessimistic or optimistic) as well as your Body Mass Index and smoking status. The site instantly returns your ‘personal day of death’ and a clock that counts down the number of seconds you have to live. Charming.’

Yes, charming. Nothing like a memento mori on your virtual shelf. That old Stoic Seneca seems to have got it right: tota vita discendum est mori.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on December 19, 2011.

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