Snow in feathers

January 23, 2019

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Last evening we had a beautiful snow storm here in North London – huge snowflakes like swan’s feathers, and not just a flurry – a real blizzard, though it didn’t settle except on the icy grass of the gardens, and in drifts on the shed roofs. But in the darkness of the early evening on our street, the flakes swarmed round the lamp-posts and fell thick and fast, though the word heavy didn’t fit the scene – it was more a complex dance of thickly-falling lightnesses through the dark. We watched from the window for ages, warm indoors while people passed by on the snowy pavement, some hunched and hurrying, some snow-strolling in pleasure, and two little girls dancing along with their mouths open to taste the great feathery snowflakes. The scene reminded us of John Clare’s opening poem in his great cycle of the year The Shepherd’s Calendar, called January, A Winters Day:

Withering and keen the winter comes

While comfort flyes to close shut rooms

And sees the snow in feathers pass

Winnowing by the window glass

Clare evokes (with his usual idiosyncratic spelling) the feeling of a snowy afternoon, and the way everyone responds, starting with the farmer hanging out in the pub reading the paper or ‘old moores almanack’, which he believes every word of, as he believes his Bible:

Puffing the while his red tipt pipe

Dreaming oer troubles nearly ripe

Yet not quite lost in profits way

He’ll turn to next years harvest day

And winters leisure to regale

Hopes better times and sips his ale

– while the labourer still goes to work, ‘and braves the tempest as he may’, including the thresher, who’s ‘shuffling through the sinking snows/ Blowing his fingers as he goes’, to cut the hay from the stack and throw it in piles on the snow for the hungry cows. The shepherd in his great coat, with his dog sheltering from the wind behind his heels, ‘Takes rough and smooth the winter weather / And paces through the snow together’, while the lonely unused plough, like the horses idling in field and yard ‘pass time away / In leisures hungry holiday /…/ Dreaming no doubt of summer sward’.  

Clare’s sympathetic, observing vision shows us men and women at work and at enforced  leisure or unemployment, cows and dogs and hogs, cats, moorhens and geese, as well as schoolboys ‘never at a loss for play / Rolling up giant heaps of snow’ and ‘Making rude things’ until they’re ‘numbd wi cold’ and go off to find ‘hotter sports’ to play – kicking their football over the frozen ground or sliding the hours away on the ice and skating on the meadow lake. And the robin ‘picking the trifles off the snow’ thrown for him by a kindly woman, and perching on the windowsill to find the little hole in the window pane he remembers from last winter, to creep into the cottage warmth.

Version 3

For a moment yesterday evening it certainly did feel like winter in earnest, though our snow didn’t last (sadly no ‘crumping underfoot’). I made this paperwork on a sheet of handmade paper (30cm x 40cm) with beautiful deckle edges, mixing the watercolour and acrylic paints with snow-melt to give the painted snow a real material presence, and lettering the text with a little winter twig, before scattering and splattering the snow-melt snow at random over the whole scene, words and all. The words are from John Clare’s poem Snow Storm, which paints a picture of a familiar world transformed by winter:

Domestic spots near home & trod so oft

Seen daily – known for years – by the strange wand

Of winters humour changed…

Trees bushes grass to one wild garb subdued

Are gone & left us in another land

There’s something so engaged and so engaging about the clarity and recognisable truth of this vision that the reader stands beside Clare now, seeing with his eyes that magical transformation. Snow Storm was part of a huge collection of his poems that Clare fair-copied in c.1832 as The Midsummer Cushion, mostly written in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s, though many of the poems were still not printed on his death in 1864, and the collection wasn’t published in its entirety for over a century until 1979. It has been one of my bibles for the last 20 years, one of those books I turn to for truth, enlightenment, revelation, stimulation, inspiration, and solace in troubled times. Perhaps I could call it a complex dance of thickly-falling lightnesses through the dark. And sometimes things seem very dark.

Back in our January day in 2019, we were sorry not to wake this morning to a transformed world, ‘another land’, but maybe all we can do, with our ‘troubles nearly ripe / Yet not quite lost’, is hope for better times and sip our ale, like John Clare’s farmer. After all, there are weeks of possibility before the end of March.

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The Shepherd’s Calendar by John Clare (ed. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, OUP 1964)

The Midsummer Cushion by John Clare (ed. Kelsey Thornton & Anne Tibble, Carcanet 1979)

Winter Snow  Paperwork by Liz Mathews with text by John Clare from Snow Storm, 30cm x 40cm, watercolour/acrylic on handmade cotton rag paper  For sale £250 unframed

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