February. Winter has been worn out, but it clings, and there is little else to lift the month for man or beast. For the academic, the brief break in the year has been consumed by the task of getting through January alive. For the non-academic, winter stretches out bleak and gray in a series of tasks and preparations that we forget the beginning of and cannot see the end of. Even in the Christian calendar, there is little on offer in this month of grim solitude. It is fuel we need, something to burn, and there is precious little in the wood shed for anyone.
Not surprisingly, I have a tendency to read Thomas Hardy’s poems in February. (Misery loves company). My favorite is the Darkling Thrush. Uplifting it is not. But it captures my sense of longing and desolation–
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
But in reading this (as in looking at the forlorn faces of my students, friends, and colleagues), I realize that it comes down to need.
A lesson might be learned from the animal kingdom. In the late winter, those creatures still above-burrow do not breed, nor do they fight, or fawn, or play. Look at the deer in the field, how they huddle together, waiting silent for a sign of thaw. The wolf waits, too, lean and hopeful. This is not fierce, driven hunger but a kind of settled, slow-burning desire–and the sunken belly’s gripe is the surest sign of life.
And so, if you are feeling the bite of winter and want, do not despair. If you are huddled over your desk, struggling to scrape together a thought, a word, much less a chapter… If you are wandering through your day, fighting off the creep of inertia… If you are in a crowd and feel alone, if you are trying your best to meet the needs of this day, this hour, with scarcely enough left to think about the morrow… Then you are on the watchful edge of waking. You are not dead. You are merely hungry for better and for more. You are not ashes, you are a spark wanting new fuel.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
–Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush”