"Winter" has a very, um, seasonal flavor to it. Its sounds try both to convey an idea of "winter" but also the idea of changing seasons more generally. As far as giving us an idea of what "winter" sounds like, consider the poem's use of onomatopoeia in several instances. Twice the speaker attempts to imitate the owl's song ("Tu-whit, tu-who!"), a song that, in this poem, symbolizes winter. If the owl's song is an outdoor, wintry sound, the "hiss" (another onomatopoetic sound) is a wintry, indoor sound—the sound of a certain food-beverage (roasted crab apples in ale) consumed when it's cold outside.
While these are the most "wintry" sounding moments of the poem, there are other, more subtle moments where the sounds of winter take over. Consider the long O sound in a word like "frozen" (4); it shows up all over the poem ("home," "Joan," "nose," "blow"). The repetition of the key vowel sound of "frozen," a word that might as well be synonymous with winter, is yet another way in which the poem sonically renders the idea of winter.
The repetition, or assonance, of the long O in this poem, however, is by no means the only instance of repetition. The last three lines of each stanza (the refrain) are the same (a fact that tells us this poem is also a song), and the speaker often uses anaphora (with the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive lines). All the monotonous repetition points to the monotony of winter. Cold, ice, snow—yup, it's all pretty much the same until the spring arrives.
The repetition also, however, gives us an idea of the cycles of the seasons. The refrain, for example, appears in the same place in each stanza, in much the same way that winter appears at about the same time every year. The same goes for the other forms of repetition like anaphora—they give the poem's sounds a sameness that mimics the sameness or regularity of the seasons, of which winter is one (and seasons are important when you consider that "Winter" is paired with "Spring" in Love's Labour's Lost). Pretty nifty, eh?
You know, it's kind of funny. This is poem is called "Winter," but the word "winter" doesn't appear anywhere in its eighteen lines—not once. Weird. Why do you suppose that is?
Luckily, Shmoopers, we've got two answers to this perplexing conundrum. First, Shakespeare never actually sat down and wrote a poem and gave it the title "Winter." The poem is actually taken from a play called Love's Labour's Lost. It is part of a longer song sung at the very end of the play (see our "In a Nutshell" for more on the place it occupies in the play). So, editors and critics have taken the poem from a play, and given it the title "Winter" because… it's about winter. Check.
We can do better than this, however. In some ways, it makes perfect sense that the title of the poem is just "Winter" and that the word doesn't occur anywhere in the poem. This is because the poem itself, rather than one of those amateur poems that goes "winter is this, winter is that, O winter," is more like a picture, a painting, a scene-in-words. Imagine a giant mural, with all the things happening in the poem somehow represented: an owl singing, crab apples sizzling, someone coughing, a guy blowing on his hands, a parson, etc. "Winter" could be the caption for this scene. The title, then, is really more of a caption for a short, but varied, "picture" of how life goes on in this chilly time of year.
Icicles, frozen milk, chilled blood—the action is definitely taking place somewhere where it's winter. But not just anywhere—just based on what the people in the poem are doing, it sure sounds like the speaker has a rural community in mind. For example, one of the characters is a shepherd, while clearly the citizens of this imaginary community still fetch their own milk. There's probably a small church or chapel nearby (where else would the parson's "saw" be interrupted?), but nothing like one of the huge churches you'd find in London.
So, what about that setting of the play in which this poem appears (Love's Labour's Lost)? Great question, gang. The play itself takes place in a region of northern Spain called Navarre. The weather is clearly warm because most of the action takes place outside the king's castle. In a nice play of contrasts, "Winter" is performed amid the background of this vernal Spanish landscape. Want more? Check out what Shmoop has to say about that play's setting.
Bear with us just a bit longer, though, because we're not quite finished yet. Since we love making everything as complicated as we can, there's still another setting we want to tell you about. We've told you about winter, and about Navarre, but we also need to consider the setting of the play-within-a-play, to which, as you'll recall, "Winter" is the conclusion. Now, this mini play is basically a pageant, where a whole bunch of historical and mythological figures (Hercules, Alexander the Great, etc.) come on stage, make speeches, do their thing, and leave.
These speech-makers, who collectively go by the name of the Nine Worthies, all lived during different historical eras (and some weren't even real). Clearly this setting is some fantastical, or mythical space where all these different heroes and historical figures could conceivably, you know, make speeches and hang out together.
The settings of the play-within-the-play, and of Love's Labour's Lost, and of "Winter," and of—oh wait, that's all of them. These three settings are less important than the fact that one can't talk about the setting of "Winter" without talking about two other settings. As with Love's Labour's Lost as whole, there are no easy answers, or rather, there are always many answers, many meanings, many interpretations. (Head over to our intro page for more on why that's the case.) In short, this play's tons of fun to, well, play with.
If you've read our "In a Nutshell" section, you know that this poem comes in right near the very end of Love's Labour's Lost. You should also know that some Spanish dude named Armado actually asks the king if two of the guys who performed the play-within-a-play can come out and sing the final songs of that play-within-a-play. The king, obviously, is cool with that request.
Sadly, however, we don't really know who actually sings these songs. Some people speculate about it, but that's really beside the real point, which is that the song is more important than who sings it, just as in the play itself, the wordplay and the puns and the games are all a little more important than what actually happens. Anyway since we don't know who for sure is speaking "Winter," we get to make some stuff up. Well, within reason, we get to. We can't say it's, like, Tom Cruise or anything.
Here's what we can tell about the speaker just based on the details we have in "Winter." He's clearly good at painting a verbal picture—he gives us a succinct series of images that really give us a great idea of village life during the winter (frozen milk in a pail, a guy carrying logs, some "greasy" woman stirring a pot, an owl getting ready to hunt).
Speaking of villages, clearly our speaker is quite familiar with village, or rather, rural life. The use of the present tense throughout the poem ("blows," "bears," "nightly sings") suggests that our speaker is on the scene, reporting the action. It's either that, or he's just recently come from the scene and is giving us a play-by-play through his eyes, kind of like a journalist might do.
He may have just come from this scene because, just maybe, he's originally from there. This is a pretty good guess because, well, in Love's Labour's Lost, the guys who perform the play within a play, of which "Winter" is the concluding piece, are definitely lower class dudes—"rustics," if you will, less-educated, pastoral folk who, back in the day, often worked as entertainers for royalty and the like (the audience for this play-within-a-play, remember, is the king of Navarre, his nobles, a princess, and her attendants).
As far as Shakespeare goes, this poem isn't too bad. While Shakespeare can be quite difficult, especially in plays like Love's Labour's Lost, he really does give us a break in this poem. Sure, there are a few strange phrases (blowing on nails?), and some words that aren't too familiar ("keel"), but overall this poem should be a cruise—a wintery cruise, but a cruise nonetheless.
Remember how we told you "Winter" is actually a song in the play Love's Labour's Lost? Well, Love's Labour's Lost isn't the only play that has a song in it. It turns out there are tons of songs embedded in many of Shakespeare's plays, and not just in the fun ones (like A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It). There are songs in Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and countless others.
To get an idea of just how varied the use of songs is in Shakespeare's plays, check this out. If you take a quick peek at all the songs excerpted there, you will quickly realize that Shakespeare's songs perform a variety of roles, from entertainment to sophisticated references to tips-of-the-hat.
If you've read our "In a Nutshell" section, you know that "Winter" is part of a two-song sequence sung at the end of Love's Labour's Lost. Like many poem-songs in English, the meter of "Winter"—is wait for it—iambic tetrameter. Tetrameter is popular in songs because the lines are a little shorter than pentameters, but not as short as, say, trimeters, which sometimes can seem kind of childish. Just sayin'.
So what in the world are we talking about? Well, iambic tetrameter is very similar to iambic pentameter, except there are four ("tetra-" means four) iambs, instead of five ("pent-" means five). What's that? You forgot what an iamb is? That's just a beat made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If you hear one out loud (like "allow"), you'll hear a daDUM sound.
Now then, how about a few examples? Here's the poem's second line:
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail.
You should hear those four iambs together: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. Well, that's easy enough. How about one more? We give you, line 6:
Then nightly sings the staring owl.
Every line in the poem is as simple as that, except for lines 7-8 and 16-17. Those four lines are written in a meter known as iambic dimeter (which is just a line with two iambs). This odd little change is really just a matter of editorial convenience, though. Some texts will print the lines as one, so that it reads "Tu-whit, to-who! A merry note," in which case you end up with a line of perfect iambic tetrameter.
In addition to the regular meter, there are a few other things to note about this chilly little poem. It rhymes, like lots of songs, and the rhyme scheme for each stanza is this: ABABCCDEF, where the letter stands for that line's end rhyme. This means the first four lines of each stanza rhyme every other line, the fifth and six lines of each stanza are a rhyming couplet, and the final three don't rhyme at all, not even a little. If we had to summarize this rhyme scheme in one word that word would be: variety. Think about it: we go from rhyming every other line (ABAB), to a couplet (CC), to no rhymes at all (DEF).
The variations of the rhyme scheme contrast with the constancy or sameness of the tetrameter (every line, four iambs, with no exceptions). The juxtaposition of formal difference or variety (the rhymes) alongside formal sameness (the tetrameter) does a pretty neat job of reinforcing what the poem says about winter, the season. During the winter, everything changes: water freezes, milk freezes, roads get all screwed up, people cough and interrupt sermons, etc., and yet, nothing changes. People still cook (greasy Joan is busy at her pot), they still go to church, they find a way to heat their home and throw a few apples into the ale while they're at it.
Just taking a quick look here, we notice that a lot of stuff in this poem is frozen and-or cold: icicles, milk, blood, snow. Well, gee, this is because it's winter, and that's what happens. (Correction, that's what happens during a real winter, not the low-of-60 winter you get in some places like Arizona.) In this poem, further north, winter freezes all kinds of stuff that's associated with life: water (icicles, snow), blood, and milk. But this doesn't mean life has disappeared. No, no, no. The people in this poem have managed to adapt (they build fires, they cook), as have the animals (well, the owl seems pretty happy). As Dr. Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, "Life, ugh, finds a way."
There are two sides to every coin, right? Yes, there are. Well, warmth is the other side of the freezing cold of winter. This poem is about being cold, but also about getting warm. Logs for a fire, a guy blowing on his "nail," and a pot of stew that is too hot to eat—all images of warmth amidst the coldness of winter. All the warmth in this poem symbolizes the persistence of life amid the desolation of winter—the ways people find to keep on keepin' on during a very difficult season.
Our friend the "staring owl" shows up twice in this poem, and he does the same thing both times: sings a song that goes "Tu-whit to-who!" Besides him, we've got those birds in the second stanza that are just chilling ("brooding") in the snow. The birds in this poem serve two functions. First, that owl, while charming, is also a bit scary; he symbolizes death in a way (he's a very scary predator). Secondly, even though winter is bleak and dreary—deathly—there is life. The owl and those other birds are very much alive.
Everything is frozen solid. People are too busy trying to stay warm (and alive, for that matter) to worry about sex. While "Winter's" counterpart, "Spring," is all about fertility and sexual energy, there's no trace of that stuff in this frigid poem.