‘In a drear-nighted December’: Keats on post-Christmas blues

I wrote this post at the end of 2011, but as we head towards Twelfth Night once again; as we prepare to take down the tree and get back into the old routines it rang a soft sleigh bell in the pocket of my blog and I returned to it. We may be in January as I write, but the words of Keats’ poem are more than appropriate as I prepare to set out for a walk in a chill wind under leaden winter skies…

Well, despite the fact that we have been gifted two bank holidays this week, the Christmas holiday is over for many as the drift back to work starts today.

As I work from home I am lucky that I don’t have to dodge the numerous questions from colleagues as to the happiness or otherwise of my festive break, or find myself taking down Christmas decs to replace them with January Sale banners. However this gap in festivities before we all summon up our energies and loosen our clothing for another twenty-four hours of over-indulgence over the New Year is always a time I find myself hitting a ‘low’. I have dragged around the supermarket buying the half price puddings and chocolate reindeer and have walked around crowded shops in search of those elusive clothing bargains that seem to come only in sizes 6 or 20, when actually it would have been better to curl up with the end of the bottle of Bailey’s and one of the many books I was the happy recipient of on Saturday. However, at the moment I find myself a little teary at the sight of the tree, still bedecked in lights and favourite decorations. There are even a few remaining chocolate decs hidden round the back of it calling to me , but all I can think of at present is that excitement, preparation and anticipation, gone in a flash for another forty-eight weeks or so.

This melancholy mood, together with the happier thought of a trip to Suffolk to stay with family to see out the old year and ring in 2011 put me in mind of a poem by John Keats; In a drear-nighted December’…

In a 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 a 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 at passing joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
Where there is none to heal it,
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

This poem was written towards the end of 1817 and is not, to be honest, one of John Keats’ greatest achievements. It uses language that echoes that used in Endymion, a poem he had recently completed and was already unhappy with.  The word ‘petting’ in line 15 for example is incomprehensible to most of us now – the notes suggest it means ‘complaining’. However, the poem as a whole, with its evocation of nature’s acceptance of the passing of the seasons and harsh times after happiness, and the last verse in particular really speak to me during this ‘dead time’ between Christmas and New Year. Unlike the frozen streams and icy spiky-twigged trees who can forget all the joys and rest easy as the seasons change, I find I respond in a similar way to the boy and girl of the last verse. It is really difficult not to keep mulling over all that has passed – not just in December but in the year as a whole – all our hopes and expectations and all the experiences we as a family have shared over the year, good and bad. ‘The feel of not to feel’ all those happy times that we can never repeat and having ‘no numbed sense’ to steel us against the memories are what I believe contribute most to this post-Christmas dreariness.

So let us all hope that as we wake up at the start of a new year those of us feeling blue can begin to look forward again; make some resolutions we may or may not stick to and be a little more like the trees and the brook, clinging on to the hope that after the frost comes the thaw and the warmth and fun of another spring.

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7 Responses to ‘In a drear-nighted December’: Keats on post-Christmas blues

  1. Viv says:

    Well I am in Suffolk(extreme north, you can walk into Norfolk from here if you dare!) so give me a shout if you come this far!!
    Once the light starts to build by February and Candlemas, it all lifts. Honest.

  2. Jade says:

    What a beautiful poem – exquisite, even its sadness (in the last stanza). I am wishing you true joy in 2011. The time goes fast… eventually it’ll be springtime again. But for now…I try to make the best of the coldness, trying to focus on the coziness it can sometimes bring.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I am OK with winter up to Christmas Day and Boxing Day but then…. But I will take your advice and try and focus on the best bits of this chilly season. A very happy 2011 to you too.

  3. D. S. Walker says:

    Suzie,
    I love your blog, but then I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve lived in Hawaii almost seventeen years now, so I miss winter at Christmas time. Our winters are only slightly cooler with a little more rain, so while the rest of world is dreaming of spring, I’m dreaming of those old snow filled days of yore from the days I lived in Colorado. I hope one day to actually take my family there for Christmas so they too can experience it.

    Your use of Keating’s poetry and the descriptive language makes me think of an age gone by which is probably how most of us Americans think of an English Christmas.
    Wishing you and yours a Happy 2011!
    Aloha,
    Sue

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