Winter – Shakespeare – Analysis

(From Love’s Labour’s Lost)

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare

Crabs = crab apples … my mother used to core apples and fill with raisins and currants and brown sugar then bake in the oven with the roast
Keel = to cool – perhaps by stirring the pot
Saw = well known phrase giving advice about life

Rhyming scheme – ababaa – then the chorus

S1 … Well here we have the winter of seventeen century rural England … the poor old shepherd can only blow on his fingers … a vain attempt at warmth … logs and milk have to be brought inside the milk freezing on the journey … and blood is nipp’d perhaps implying loss of circulation (rather than a reference to drink) … and difficult mobility (ways be foul) … it gives great emphasis to the harsh outside conditions

Chorus … we are taken to the night blacking out the cold except for the hoot of the staring owl … but why is this a merry note? … usually more thought of as sinister and haunting … perhaps it is because we are now indoors with Joan and in the welcome warmth of the kitchen and from this perspective it could be seen as ‘merry’ … and ‘merry’ has connotations with Christmas time too and celebration … an indoor celebration from the cold

… but why is Joan greasy? – because of her work with meat in the kitchen? … or because her clothes are dirty covered in grease from cooking – rather than because she has greasy skin herself … for it must have been difficult to keep clothes clean in those day.

S2 …Again the contrast between the outdoors and the indoors returning to the kitchen and the cooking of crab-apples before the repeat of the chorus

What is the parson’s saw – getting his teeth into the congregation? …perhaps all fire and brimstone … but winter is a time of coughing and colds and the congregation get their own back by drowning the parson’s words with their noise … and winter slows things down and in line with the nipp’d blood of S1 the birds sit brooding … so there is a nice balance between the two stanzas

The Chorus again … the repeat of the owl from the warmth of the kitchen

In summary, this is a descriptive poem on winter and how people lived at that time in rural England giving great contrast between the outside severity and the indoor warmth – with the sense of it being rather nice to be indoors after being outside.

On a personal note I can identify with this poem remembering times when I was a child and we used to have family visits to an uncle, a farmer in rural Hampshire. In winter the large low-ceiling farmhouse lounge was heated by a wood-fire – the fireplace of such dimensions that one could literally sit within its structure on either side of the threatening blaze – while outside a blustery cold wind battered snowflakes against the front door. And of course the dining room table was always adorned with wonderful home cooked food – in particular meringue halves kissed with farm-cream and brandy snaps filled with the same. The contrast between the warmth and cold externals was heightened when car trouble sometimes delayed our departure into the black night.

2 thoughts on “Winter – Shakespeare – Analysis

  1. ‘Saw’ is nothing to do with fire and brimstone. Simply means the parson’s sermon (‘saw’ literally means ‘saying’).

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