In Drear-nighted December

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity…

“Drear-nighted December” Keats’s felicitous phrase sums up the way many of us feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed, it is just because those bleak rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and still retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of all their former green-ness that they will unfold  into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

It can be the same with us, we manage to get through the winter, and also through the heart’s severer seasons, because we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem “The Flower”:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

But Herbert knew, even in the depth of winter that “grief melts away/like snow in May/ as if there were no such cold thing” and so in this great poem of recovery he writes: And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live …

And what about us? I think that we too, in drear-nighted December need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do at Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, The Life within us and the seed of light is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that True Vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when for many of us our hearts feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of advent I pray for Him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said: “He may with one word make all green again”.


Filed under imagination, literature, Meditation

8 responses to “In Drear-nighted December

  1. …Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
    that always seems about to give in
    something that will not acknowledge conclusion
    insists that we forever begin.

    Brendan Kenelly

  2. janis bonner

    “…we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. ”

    How lovely and this reminded me…

    “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”
    Rectorial address, May 3, 1922, St. Andrew’s University, Scotland
    James Matthew Barrie

    • malcolmguite

      thanks. it was in that same rectorial address, I think that Barrie quoted his personal letter from Scott about being sustained in extremis by memory and friendship

  3. Malcolm, the antiphons are exquisite. And one of the great marvels unforeseen for me is your reference to Julia Bolton Holloway. She was my professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and probably my most favorite. I edited her amazing book “Saint Bride and Her Book” as an undergraduate student. We lost touch after I left the university and I have thought of her many times over the years. Thank you so much for the reference. I am looking forward to reconnecting with her — she is a remarkable person! Blessings!

    • malcolmguite

      Oh isn’t that remarkable. Someone put me in touch with her after the antiohon sonnets were published and we have been in touch ever since, she is a very remarkable person currently living as a hermit in Florence, someone of great prayerfulness and spiritual insight.

  4. It truly amazes me to see how God ties all threads together into a whole piece no matter how great the gaps are in distance or even death. Nothing is lost in His hands, only sometimes out of our sight.

  5. Pingback: Interview Series with Malcolm Guite – Part 2 | Lancia E. Smith

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