As the solstice comes upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere our thoughts turn to surviving the cold. While it's considerably milder here in Scotland than it was while I was teaching in New York, cold it is and cups of tea provide welcome warmth. It's hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages measured their lives in winters survived. In many ways the mid-winter celebrations offer a chance to celebrate that hope and restore it for the lean months ahead.
It's the perfect time to consider the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which I think of as a companion to The Wanderer. Both elegiac poems that mourn a lost past, they celebrate the power of the comitatus, the loyal troop of warriors and find poetic resonance in the harsh world of winter.
There's a wonderful passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet leads us through the changing seasons. I've always been struck by the poet's evocation of the harshness of winter's chill -- no surprise at time when people still reckoned age by how many winters they'd survived.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez, Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute, When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez, To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne. Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone, Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype; He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse, Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe; Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne, Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde, And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere; Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst, And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony, And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage, Til Meȝelmas mone Watz cumen wyth wynter wage.