In drear nighted December
John Keats, 1817
In drear nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity—
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.
Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy—
But were there ever any
Writh’d not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.
I often find myself wistfully returning to these lines as I walk home across campus on dark December nights when the wind whispers through the bare trees. Advent comes at the darkest time of year, and this particular poem reflects on the season itself. Our common, dare I say, secular, experience of winter’s darkness and cold acts as a focal point by which we can remember and anticipate the renewal of light and warmth: outward and tangible as well as inward and spiritual. Keats’ poem captures the spirit of winter. It is with this poem that I would ask you to engage with me, not as a means of explanation, agreement, or argumentation, but as an interlocutor to ponder the dovetailing of Advent and winter.
The phrase “in drear nighted December” encapsulates how many feel in the midst of the ever-encroaching darkness of winter. While it is indeed easy to forget the light, I think Keats’ conclusion about the tree may be somewhat misconstrued. It is precisely because of the sleety north winds that the bleak December branches do “remember their green felicity,” keeping sub rosa the memory of that green-ness which will unfold into leaves and flowers come springtime—to be able, as Philip Larkin wrote, to say “last year is dead… begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”
We, too, can weather the winter. Some of us begrudgingly stumble through. Some of us slip and fall on occasion. Some of us press our ruddy cheeks to the glass in childlike wonder as the snow begins to fall, while others shudder with dread at the impending accumulation. And still others skate through with grace and poise. Yet, we manage to get through the winter, and also perhaps the more severe seasons of soul, because we hold within us the memory of spring and the hope of warmth to come, and perhaps the “midwinter spring” that T.S. Eliot describes in his “Little Gidding” is a season within us all. We are uplifted by the convergence of memory and hope, and as George Herbert writes in his poem “The Flower:”
Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; 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.
Yet, as he wrestled with grief, loss, and bouts of deep depression, Herbert holds on to hope, and he knows that, even in the depths of winter:
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Memory of our “green felicity” is not merely a recollection of facts or moments in time as static events; to remember is something else entirely. It is a mighty agency—to be able to re-member. It is as if to reattach members to oneself, and it is an act of restoration when done in the light of truth. To remember is to restore. To return to one’s memories, particularly the painful ones, is to revisit a place of holy ground. It is to return to the breaking ground and the winnowing field. However, we are not given this gift of memory to haunt us in despair or to be ever lurking; it is a gift meant for good. Memory, in full bloom, allows us to pause.
In this pause, we must honor the space between what is no longer and what is not yet. That space is one of remembering and one of waiting. Ultimately, we must ask the question: For what or for whom are we waiting? What is it that we are to remember? We are waiting for the Light, by which we may remember ourselves and by which we may remember the beginning.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3). And, upon the creation of man and woman—the pinnacle of God’s creation—He never forced them into a spiritual union with Him, giving them one instruction: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16). Yet, they were not content and, deceived by the serpent, ate of the fruit. Thus, God cast them out of the Garden of Eden, out of Paradise, and into a world of chaos, of disorder, of death, and of darkness. The perfect union of God and men was at an end.
And yet, to make an end is to make a beginning.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:1-5) Into the darkest days of winter, there shines the Everlasting Light, the Light of hope, of joy, of peace. Christ the True Light that illumines the darkness of the manger illumines us as well. By Him, we can see that which in more ordinary times remains veiled in shadow—that He has come to us to restore us to the image and likeness of Him who created us, to be what we were created to be. Christ is not simply the only-begotten Son and Word of God, but He is “the image of the invisible God,” revealed to us in mortal flesh. Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning. He comes to reattach us to Himself, and He calls us to remember the first Adam that we might recognize the final Adam. This is the meaning of Christmas, the end of our anticipation and the crux of our remembrance. A new Adam has come, the Image Himself, Jesus Christ. In Him we are returned to the Garden of Eden and offered the Root of Jesse, the Tree of Life, from which we may eat and live.
Liturgically, we remember His birth and baptism in order that we might recognize their connection to His death and resurrection. Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes under the rule of Caesar Augustus that He might be wrapped in winding sheets under the ruling of Pontius Pilate. He was born that He might die, and he was baptized in order that He would be raised. As Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory writes, “The Pascha [Easter] of His Cross was prepared by the Pascha of His Coming. The Pascha of His Resurrection was begun by the Pascha of His Incarnation. The Pascha of His Glorification was foretold by the Pascha of His Baptism.” This is what Christians celebrate each year in what Fr. Alexander Schmemann was the first to call “the Winter Pascha.”
God has given us this season of darkness that we might anticipate the light. God has given us Himself that we might remember that we are in His image. In the waiting, God gives us memory that we might have roses in December. In preparation for the Winter Pascha, for the coming of the Light into the world, the soul’s sap quivers with anticipation, and we find ourselves at the end and at the beginning. May we, even in the darkness, await Him well.
Vera Mackyntoich is a senior studying Economics and German.