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Weather Almanac for December 2006
A WEATHER GARDEN OF VERSE
Another calendar has reached its terminal page, and the holidays approach with their memories, traditions, and merriment. At this time of year, this weatherman's thoughts turn to the weather symbols of the holiday season, many of which find their origins in graphic art, song and verse. Who out there is not "dreaming of a white Christmas" even if they live in the warm climes of the American South and Pacific Coast? And yet the odds are against most Americans and a fair portion of Canadians having that dream fulfilled.
The phrase "dreaming of a white Christmas" comes from the verse of the song White Christmas made popular by Bing Crosby and first sung in the movie Holiday Inn (later to capitalize on the song's popularity, Bing made a movie called White Christmas). Another popular weather image of the season comes from the famous poem by Clement C. Moore written in 1822. T'was the Night Before Christmas, which my mother says was the first I committed to memory, and is actually titled A Visit from St. Nicholas. The lines I remember most vividly come at a junction where the reader usually changes the tempo of the poem to a slower, calmer pace: "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow / Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, ... ." Then the great image:
"As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
Winter Begins by Keith C. Heidorn,
|"The fog comes
on little cat feet."
|"The only other sound's the sweep|
Of easy wind and downy flake."
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Both Sandburg and Frost wrote many poems with weather as the main theme and thousands of weather images within their works as the above two attest. (By my count, Frost wrote at least 19 poems with a weather word in the title, but none contained the word frost in the title.)
|The monotone of the rain is beautiful,
And the sudden rise and slow relapse
Of the long multitudinous rain.
Carl Sandburg, Monotone
|"Wind, the season-climate mixer,|
In my Witches' Weather Primer
Says, to make this Fall Elixir
First you let the summer simmer,"
Robert Frost, Clear and Colder
Another great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used weather imagery extensively in his works. For example,
|"Through woods and mountain passes,
The winds, like anthems, roll."
Midnight Mass for the Dying Years
|"The day is cold, and dark, and dreary|
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary."
The Rainy Day
Emily Dickinson watched a thunderstorm and wrote:
"The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low,
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.
The thunder hurried slow;
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw."
Then of snow she wrote:
"The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go."
The Sky Is Low
When Whittier wasn't snowbound, he was rejoicing over the coming of Winter. In The Frost Spirit he cries:
"He comes, he comes, the Frost Spirit comes!
You may trace his footsteps now
On the naked woods and the blasted fields
And the brown hill's withered brow."
William Cullen Bryant extolled the power of a storm After a Tempest, the glory of the Summer Wind, and the virtues of cloud and sky:
|"AY! gloriously thou standest there,
Beautiful, boundless firmament!
That swelling wide o'er earth and air,
And round the horizon bent,
With thy bright vault, and sapphire wall,
Dost overhang and circle all."
|"...I woo the wind|
That still delays its coming. Why so slow,
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?"
American poetry related to weather is as varied as the weather itself and was not only the forte of the great poets but also those unknown poets that are found in every nook and cranny like me.
Canadian verse also found much expression in the weather. Note surprising a lot and some of the best speak of Winter.
Canadian poet Robert W Service wrote much about the weather, titling one of his collections: Songs of a Sun Lover. Among his best describe the severe weather in the Yukon, particularly the long harsh winters that bedevilled many a gold seeker in the great rush that formed the basis for many of his greatest books of rhyme.
"The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb."
The Spell of the Yukon
In The Cremation of Sam McGee the tale ends with a twist, Sam McGee was not dead, only frozen stiff and life-less, but the cremation fire thawed him out.
But in his A Song of Winter Weather, Service turned to the dismal winter weather not of Canada, but of the trenches of World War I:
"Oh, the rain, the mud, and the cold,
The cold, the mud, and the rain;
With weather at zero it's hard for a hero
From language that's rude to refrain."
I recently became aware of a group of poets known as the "Confederation poets" whose poems have many weather links.
In The Weather Vane Bliss Carman wrote:
"And then there came a night of storm,
Of wind and dark and snow,
And in the morn my weather-vane
Had vanished in the blow."
That stanza so reminded me of my own poem: The Day My Windsock Ran Away. Other Carman weather works include Before The Snow, Indian Summer, Summer Storm and First Frost.
"Now soon, ah, very soon, I know
The trumpets of the north will blow,
And the great winds will come to bring
The pale, wild riders of the snow."
Before The Snow
Archibald Lampman, widely regarded as Canada's finest 19th-Century English-language poet, penned A Night of Storm, After Snow, A Thunderstorm, Snow, Cloud-Break, and The Wind's Word to name a few.
|"Sound is there none,
Save evermore the fierce wind's sweep and moan,
From whose gray hands the keen white snow is
In desperate gusts, that fitfully lull and waken..."
A Night of Storm
|White are the far-off plains, and white|
The fading forests grow;
The wind dies out along the height,
And denser still the snow,
A gathering weight on roof and tree,
Falls down scarce audibly.
|"Sharp drives the rain, sharp drives the endless rain.|
The rain-winds wake and wander, lift and blow.
The slow smoke-wreaths of vapour to and fro,
Wave and unweave and gather and build again
Over the far gray reaches of the plain, ..."
He and Bliss Carman were members of the "Confederation poets" which also included Sir Charles G.D. Robertson (Midwinter Thaw; The Silver Thaw; Rain), Frederick George Scott, Duncan Campbell Scott, and William Wilfred Campbell.
A much earlier writer and poet in frontier Upper Canada, Susanna Strickland Moodie wrote in Indian Summer:
"This dreamy Indian-summer day,
Attunes the soul to tender sadness;
We love but joy not in the ray
It is not Summer's fervid gladness,
But a melancholy glory
Hovering softly round decay,..."
Moodie's brother Samuel Strickland penned verse as well and in one described the impact of a tornado that hit Guelph (Ontario) in 1829. Among the other Canadian poets with a good weather sense are E. Pauline Johnson and James P. Moffatt.
The British Romantic poets included weather in many of their famous poems (See this BBC site for a discussion). The Cloud and Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley are among the most famous.
|"I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder."
|"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,|
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,"
Ode to the West Wind
The Bard William Shakespeare placed weather imagery in many of his plays and sonnets such as "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May" in Sonnet 18 which begins with those famous words: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
William Wordsworth "wandered lonely as a cloud,/That floats on high o'er vales and hills," and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is beset with all forms of weather to torment him. First his ship was driven by a storm toward the South Pole:
"And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along."
Then becalmed in equatorial waters, he laments:
"Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean."
The Ancient Mariner
John Masefield defined the West Wind with:
"It's a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds' cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills
And April's in the west wind, and daffodils."
The West Wind
Whereas Frost stopped by the snowy woods, Anne Bronte composed in the woods on a windy day:
"My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky..."
Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day
Christina Rossetti asked the profound question:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
Who Has Seen The Wind?
Robert Louis Stevenson, from whom I was inspired for the title of this peace, also wrote about the wind:
"Up with the sun, the breeze arose,Stevenson had another connection with the weather, by blood. His father Thomas constructed a shelter for weather instruments that proved so successful it is still in use and carries the family name: the Stevenson screen.
Across the talking corn she goes,
And smooth she rustles far and wide
Through all the voiceful countryside."
An English Breeze
Not all poets who wrote eloquently about weather are as well known as those quoted above. For example, Harold Munro was more known as an editor and promoter of poetry in Britain, but he wrote some vivid weather lines such as this:
"Faint streaky wisps of roaming cloud
Are swiftly from the mountains swirl'd;
The wind is like a floating shroud
Wound light above the shivering world."
American Paul Hamilton Hayne wrote several weather related poems including After The Tornado, On the Occurrence of a Spell of Arctic Weather in May, 1858, and Earth Odors After Rain. In Cloud Fantasies, he wrote:
"Wild, rapid, dark, like dreams of threatening doom,
Low cloud-racks scud before the level wind;
Beneath them, the bare moorlands, blank and blind,
Stretch, mournful, through pale lengths of glimmering gloom;"
In some cases, weather verse comes from weathermen themselves. George W. Mindling, a US Weather Bureau meteorologist during the first half of the Twentieth Century, penned several weather poems which have been preserved for us by the NOAA Library website. One is fairly relevant to this month an untitled poem on winter, whose sentiments parallel mine:
"There's a certain old question the Weather Man hears;
In the fall of the year it gets into his ears.
And whenever they ask him, "when does winter begin?"
He will tell them naively, ‘When cold weather sets in.' "
"There are some who insist on a calendar date,
And they want it the same for every State,
From the northernmost plain in a terrible blizzard
To the southernmost shore warm enough for a lizard."
"Now the Weather Man thinks that it does not make sense
In Duluth and Miami on the same day to commence
To declare that it's winter and that winter will stay
Till the day off in March called the equinox day."
"While the almanac makers do state in their ways
That the length of the winter is just ninety days,
Up in Maine I have heard in the best Yankee style
That it's winter nine months and it's cold all the while."
"In Miami, however, or down at Saint Pete,
They assume that your house never needs any heat.
If you speak about winter, they warmly reply,
"Such a thing is unknown under our friendly sky."
"So the Weather Man says you can not fix a date
That is true in each year and is true in each State.
And to each one that asks, "When does winter begin?"
He will answer naively, ‘When cold weather sets in.' "
If I had unlimited time and space I would include works by William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, John Ruskin, Rod McKuen, Lorne Eiseley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Whitcomb Riley, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And a particular favourite Victor Hernandez Cruz's witty Problems with Hurricanes.
I conclude with two lines from Robert W. Service's poem Nature's University which seem appropriate for me:
"Of sea and sky a student I,
With all outdoors for home."
Have a wonderful holiday season and, even if the odds are against a White Christmas, still dream.
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