Emily Dickinson, “Winter is good – his Hoar Delights” (1316)

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights (1316)
Emily Dickinson

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

Comment:

At first glance this looks to be a poem about how bad, depressing things are not just necessary but welcome for intellectuals. “Winter is good,” our speaker declares, proclaiming that his “hoar” delights. That’s an exceptionally strong claim: one can imagine hoarfrost marking a body as frozen to death. It’s such a strong claim that the pressure is on us readers to be very precise. We’re already at a point where we can get a reflection that makes absolutely no sense from this poem.

As the “Hoar Delights,” “Italic flavor yield.” This makes some sense: the climate of Italy stops being dominant in one’s mind. Intellects, after all, are drunk with Summer in this poem. Some kind of corrective is necessary, but again, the speaker goes further. She has said the hoar delights – that’s one bit of excessive praise. Now she says the yielding of “Italic flavor” is good for… not being drunk on the World?

I admit I’m at an impasse by the end of the first stanza. Usually one says things like winter or tragedy are good because they remind us that part of the world is loss, is difficulty. One can say “well, maybe she’s emphasizing “inebriate” – that someone isn’t really open to the world, but drunk on it. There is something to that reading, but I’d rather be challenged. Is there something about being a worldly intellectual that’s the problem?

“Hoar” and the seasons subtly suggested otherworldliness. The gray frost, the lack of warmth and heat: we can imagine an author or intellectual thinking more about what might or might not lie beyond. We can imagine gray hair and a lot less confidence in the very passions one feels. Winter is good because it is forcing a perspective beyond our passions. It’s forcing a genuine otherworldliness.

Of course, it is impossible to think credibly of what lies beyond (revelation is not the issue here). Any reflection on that inevitably turns into a mirror of this life (hence, Socrates’ response to the people who voted for his acquittal in the Apology: after death either I will be nothing, or I’ll be in Hades asking famous people questions like I do now). Winter is “generic as a quarry.” A quarry results in walls, statues, buildings. All our artifice, our entire world, is shaped by winter. “Generic” seems to stand where we might try “universal” or “necessary.” Another strange claim about winter: it is “hearty – as a Rose.” Winter has a delicacy, a beauty of its own. Our reflection on what lies beyond isn’t shaped by some abstraction. It is a response to something very particular in this world, something specific to each of us. It’s strange to say death means something different for all of us, but that seems to be where Dickinson is headed. “Welcome when he goes:” we’re not dead yet. Plenty of time to figure out what life and death mean for us.

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