The Complex Themes of Winter Poetry: Creating a Winter Poetry Unit for Secondary ELA

This winter season, I found myself missing the snow for the first time in my life because we made a big move from a cold climate where we have lived for the past six years to a warm climate where there is no snow.  I never fully realized how much we count on the weather to mark the passing of time.  It has caused me to question what defines the meaning of time, to reevaluate how I perceive time, and how I mark the passing of time.  This new set of inquiries set me out one evening to research famous, classic poems about the season of winter.  I wanted to reach out to the famous, classic authors to see how they responded to winter and to see how the season informed their perspectives on life.  

What I realized is that winter is a very complex season.  It is complex because of the duality inherent within the season.  While the snow and the ice are aesthetically beautiful, that beauty represents the death and destruction of life.  So, the idea that beauty is distraction and distraction is beauty is a complicated concept to try to unpack.  

Given that, winter is a polarizing season.  People either love it, or they hate it.  I have yet to meet a single person who is indifferent or ambivalent towards winter.  When my husband and I were living in Chicago, it was my first experience with a "real winter."  Initially, I refused to purchase one of those puffy "snowman coats" because I thought they looked ridiculous, and coming from Texas, we were always more concerned about appearance rather than functionality.  But it didn't take long before I realized I needed one of those coats.  And when we had our first hypothermia warning one winter evening, I gave in, and I bought this white puffy down coat that made me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  But I didn't care because it kept me warm.  And thus began my loathing of the winter season.  

As I sat there that night reading poem after poem after poem about winter, I began to realize that even the classic authors were divided in their attitude towards winter.  I began to sort poems into two stacks: one stack for poems with a positive view of winter, and one stack for poems with a negative view of winter.  A great divide began to form, and I confronted some positive associations with winter that I had not yet considered due to my own biases against this particular season.  

Click on the photo to check out the Bespoke ELA Winter Poetry Unit on TpT!

Click on the photo to check out the Bespoke ELA Winter Poetry Unit on TpT!

This led me to my Aha! moment to create a winter poetry unit, which I did not intend to do at the start of my inquiry into the seasons.  As I continued to sort poems into the two categories, and I began to realize that this would make a fantastic exercise for my students.  Some of the poems that I selected have very strong, very unambiguous tones for or against winter; however, a few of the poems that I selected for this unit are a bit more ambiguous, a bit more "gray," if you will, and would lend themselves to an interesting class debate in order to categorize them either for or against winter.  This concept is the driving force behind the Bespoke ELA Winter Poetry Unit.  Below, I have listed the TEN poems that I selected for the Winter Poetry Unit, and I have given some of my commentary on these poems in regards to their attitude towards winter and how they utilize winter to create a thematic message.

"Midnight mass for the dying Year" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This poem is constructed to reflect the structure of the Catholic mass.  In the poem, the people have gathered to mourn the dying year, and by the end of the poem, the speaker realizes that even though the year is ending, the year's committed sins may carry forth into the new year.   The speaker seems to desire for his sins to be washed away with the ending of the year, but he realizes that isn't possible and cries out in order to have mercy upon his soul.  So, this is a poem that is religious in nature but shows how we look back sometimes on the year with regret. Because of the sense of regret that the speaker feels at the end of the year, I have assigned this poem to the negative side because it uses winter to reflect not only the death of the year, but perhaps the death of the soul.

"Winter Song" by Katherine Mansfield

In Katherine Mansfield's poem on winter, she uses a very childlike rhyme structure that at first blush makes the poem appear to be rather simplistic.  However, upon closer analysis, the poem  uses chiasmus in order to provide social commentary on how winter leads to the suffering of everyone but particularly the innocent such as homeless children and animals.  It is a thought- provoking poem that uses a negative depiction of winter in order to force us to consider those less fortunate who are most vulnerable during the season and winter.

"Sonnet 97" by William Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's sonnet, he compares his absence from his loved one to winter.  This is a classic love poem by Shakespeare that shows how separation from a loved one leads to sadness and the inability to enjoy happy times, or happy seasons such as summer.

"To Winter" by William Blake

Blake's poem "To Winter" also conveys a negative depiction of winter, and in his classic style, Blake uses the seasons as representations of good versus evil.  He casts winter as an evil monster who takes pleasure in torturing people and watching them suffer.  Blake creates an epic, primal battle between good, represented by the heavens above (God), and evil, represented by winter (Satan).  He shows that good always overcomes evil just as the spring always returns after the winter.

"Craving for Spring" by D.H. Lawrence

This poem by D.H. Lawrence is, perhaps, the poem with the most negative depiction of winter among the ten that I chose for the Winter Poetry Unit.  It is also the longest poem that I chose for the unit, coming in at 101 lines, most of which uses repetition in order to emphasize the misery of winter.  The repetition becomes so overbearing that it seems almost obsessive, and towards the end of the poem, we learn that the speaker might possibly be dying. The extreme emotions of the poem are too exaggerated just to be a poem about winter and spring. "Craving for Spring" seems to be more about craving a return to innocence once again.

"Winter Milk" by Carl Sandburg

Sandburg's poem takes us to the other side, to the positive depiction of winter. In this poem, Sandburg uses milk to symbolize the necessity for making mistakes in order to achieve goals and ambitions.  In this sense, "Winter Milk" is a motivational poem that encourages people not to fear "spilling milk," or making mistakes, because mistakes define success and  are necessary in order to progress in life.

"The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy

This particular poem is very debatable and can be interpreted as having either a positive or negative depiction of winter.  It all depends on how the reader interprets whether or not the thrush, or the bird, that the speaker hears in the forest changes the speaker's attitude towards winter, or whether the bird reminds the speaker that he is not as happy as the bird.  I chose to assign this pome to the positive side, perhaps to play devil's advocate, and to interpret the poem to mean that hope can be found even amidst the most dire circumstances, represented by winter.

"The First Snowfall" by James Russell Lowell

This poem is incredibly moving, and it depicts the story of a father talking to his young daughter about the creator of the snow, and it reminds him of the child that he lost.  Although the story of the poem is quite sad because it is about the death of a child, it is also a poem about having faith and believing that every season has a purpose, even winter, even death. 

"Fireside Winter" by William Cowper

This poem is similar to the last poem that I will be sharing. Both of these final poems reflect upon how winter brings people together.  In Cowper's take on this idea, he describes in his poem how winter encourages people to gather by the fireplace, sing songs, and create art.  So this poem has a very clearly positive depiction of winter.

"Winter" by Robert Southey

In Southey's poem, the speaker describes how old Man Winter is misrepresented as a bitter, old man when, in reality, he is a grandfather-type character that enjoys the winter because of the unity that the season of winter brings.  It is a poem that reflects upon the concept of appearance versus reality and how appearances can be deceiving.

Click on the image to purchase the Bespoke ELA Winter Poetry Unit!

Click on the image to purchase the Bespoke ELA Winter Poetry Unit!

I was feeling inspired by the winter and started researching classic poems about the season.  What I came to realize is that winter is a polarizing season-- people either love it or hate it-- and writers reflect this in their work.  Winter is complex.  While the snow and ice bring much beauty, that beauty represents death and destruction.  And so, many writers have found winter (as well as spring) to be powerful tools in symbolizing both positive and negative thematic claims.

In this unit, I have included TEN poems by classic authors that involve winter in some capacity.  Some poems use winter to symbolize absence, others age, and still others unity. Five of these poems have a more positive representation of winter while the remaining five have a more negative representation of winter-- however, this is debatable!  And that is exactly what students are going to do! 

In the Winter Poetry Unit by Bespoke ELA, students are to:

1. Annotate the poems using the TPCASTT chart included.
2. Categorize the poems as either having a positive view of winter or a negative view of winter.
3. Debate the view of winter in one or more poems.
4. Write an explication essay on a winter poem of their choice-- sample essays, assignment, and rubric included!
5. Create a group presentation in which they compare/contrast two winter poems of their choice-- assignment and rubric included!
6. Write their own original winter poem along with an explication paragraph in which they explain how they communicate their thematic claim through selected literary devices-- assignment, student sample, and rubric included!

This unit is modifiable for students of all levels and can also be shortened into a few days or extended into a few weeks.  Teachers can choose which poems and activities to complete with their classes and really delve into this season that brings unity amidst destruction. 

I have also included my annotation notes for ALL TEN POEMS!!!  Use these to guide discussions or to modify lessons for your students.  Please note that my annotations do not represent the only possible interpretations of these poems and that my classification of poems is highly debatable!!

Common Core Standards are included on the assignment sheets throughout this packet! This is a great unit to target nearly 100% of the Common Core!!

How do you feel about winter?  Do you like winter?  What other poems would you include in a Winter Poetry Unit?  We'd love to hear from you! Please leave us a comment!