This poem is sort of like a picture, or rather a scene. It tells us, in two stanzas, that, when there are icicles, and a dude carrying logs, and another guy trying to warm his hands, and frozen milk, and bad roads, and blood is cold… well, then an owl sings out and some woman stirs a pot. (Taking notes out there?) Also, when people are coughing, and the wind is blowing, and crab apples are hissing in a bowl of ale… then that same owl sings while a woman stirs a pot. Peachy—or crab apple-y.
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
- Okay, here we go. The poem opens with a set up. "When icicles hang by the wall," and some dude named Dick (who is a shepherd) "blows his nail"… um, something else happens.
- Hmm. What happens? We don't know yet, but we'll go ahead and guess that at some point the speaker will tell us. Hopefully.
- At least we know that this poem is called "Winter," so it's fitting that the poem opens with some images of winter: hanging icicles and a guy blowing his nail.
- Wait, what does he mean Dick shepherd blows his nail? And who is Dick the shepherd anyway?
- Well, to blow one's nail means exactly that: to blow on one's nail. It's like blowing on your hands when you're freezing, like this, only blowing on your fingernail instead. Hey, don't ask us. Dick is the one doing it.
- And as for our pal? Well, so far it seems that he's nobody in particular. It's just like saying "Jo Schmo" or "John Doe." It's just a generic name for some imaginary shepherd (someone who herds sheep).
- After this first, quick look, it looks like the meter of this poem is going to be iambic tetrameter, which means there will be four iambs ("tetra-" means four) instead of five (as in the more common iambic pentameter). What in the Wide World of Sports are we talking about? Don't stress it. Just head over to "Form and Meter" for a longer discussion, but be sure to come right back here.
- And if you don't feel like doing that just yet, stick with us as we continue our journey into "Winter."
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipp'd, and ways be foul,
- Well, we still don't find out what happens. All we get in these next three lines are more parts to the "when" from the first line and a ton of something we call in the poetry biz anaphora (repetition of similar phrasing or sentence structure—"Tom bears" and "milk comes"; "When icicles hang" and "When blood is nipp'd").
- When Tom (another generic name) "bears" (brings) logs into the hall, and when milk that's being carried home in a bucket freezes, and when blood is "nipp'd" (chilled) and "ways be foul"… again, something happens.
- Okay, we've got a few things to clear up here. First, Tom is probably carrying logs for a fire in the fireplace that is in the hall.
- It's winter, so fire is necessary for warmth.
- Keep in mind that this poem was written way back in the day (1597-ish), so there were no heaters, only actual fires, with logs, like this.
- As for milk being frozen—again, it's winter. When whoever milks the cow brings the pail of milk home, the freezing cold weather, well, freezes it. Sheesh, that's a bummer. We've tried to freeze milk (to make yummy milk pops), and it ain't easy.
- As for blood being nipped, perhaps you've heard the phrase "it's a bit nippy out." "Nipp'd" and "nippy" just mean cold, or sometimes even "frozen."
- Finally, "ways" just means roads, or paths; they are "foul" because the terrible winter weather makes them icy, muddy, and overall a huge pain to walk or ride along.
- They probably look a bit like this.
- Well, so far, this is a pretty bleak description of winter. One is so cold that he needs to heat his fingernails, another is bringing wood for a fire, the milk is frozen, blood is freezing cold, the roads are bad, and to top it off there are icicles hanging down.
- Winter is definitely not a kind season. Sure, the icicles are pretty neat, but muddy roads and frozen milk? Yeah, forget that.
- But don't forget this: that long O sound in "frozen" and "home" is an example of cool literary figure called both assonance, as well as internal rhyme. Keep your eyes, and ears, open to further examples of this little guy in the rest of the poem.
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
- Finally, finally, finally we find out what happens when Dick heats his fingers, Tom hauls some logs, the milk comes home as one giant ice cube, and—well, you get the idea.
- The staring owl "nightly sings" a song that goes "Tu-whit, to-who." (Note the alliteration in the song. There's more about this poem's sound in "Sound Check.") In other words, some owl stares at things every night ("nightly") when it's winter time and does his best The Voice audition.
- Wait, so that's it? Really? An owl sings a song that goes "Tu-whit, to who!"? We were kind of hoping for something a little more interesting but we guess we'll settle.
- But what is the significance of the owl here? Well, first off, owls are really awesome birds (seriously). Secondly, though, it's fitting that, during such a cold, miserable time, a bird of prey should be out and about. What better time for an apex predator to prey on little mice and bunnies than in the dead of winter?
- Finally, consider this: obviously, winter is making life really hard for people. They need fires, the roads they want to travel are no good, etc.
- The same is not true for the owl, though. He's hanging out and singing. (Owls have lots of feathers that keep him pretty warm so don't worry; he's not out there freezing.)
- The point is, humans and animals are different, or rather the seasons affect them differently. This seems like a point that we may want to hold on to as we trudge forward through the poem.
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
- At the end of the stanza, the speaker offers a comment about the owl's song—and tells us something else.
- He calls the owl's "Tu-whit Tu-who" a "merry note," and says the owl sings this song while "greasy Joan doth keel the pot."
- Okay, a couple of things about ol' greasy Joan. (This was the name we gave our cafeteria lady in junior high, but we digress.)
- First, like Dick the shepherd and Tom, this is most likely just some generic rural name. The "greasy" part may refer to the fact that she's clearly in the kitchen.
- However, our sources tell us that back in the day "greasy Joan" was a nickname for a prostitute. We're not so sure that this reference is what's intended here, but we should just keep that in mind.
- Meanwhile, what's Joan up to? She's keeling the pot, which means she's stirring it ("to keel" once meant "to stir").
- Ah, so there is life after all. Even though the milk is frozen and the roads are bad, it is still possible to keep things cozy. Joan is cooking up a storm, and Tom is feeding the fire while an owl sings outside.
- Just a minute—speaking of that owl, why does the speaker call his song a "merry note"? Is his song supposed to be one of the pretty things about winter, you know, part of that "winter wonderland" they always sing about in the Christmas songs?
- Perhaps. Perhaps, too, this is meant to be ironic. Owls are cute and all, but you wouldn't say that if you were a mouse would you? Eh, probably not.
- If you've been keeping track, you may have noticed that this poem rhymes. We'll talk a little more about this over in "Form and Meter," but for now we'll just hit you with the rhyme scheme: ABABCCDEF, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme sound. So, line 1 rhymes with line 2, line 2 with line 4, and so on.
- We've got one more stanza of "Winter" to go, so let's get to it and see what else Bill Shakes has in store. (P.S. "Bill Shakes" is just our clever nickname for William Shakespeare. Yeah, we thought you'd like it.)
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
- At first glance, it looks like the second stanza is going to proceed much like the first, with a whole bunch of "whens," followed by a "then." Cool—we guess.
- This time, the speaker says that, when the "wind doth [does] blow" really loudly ("all aloud") or audibly, and when "coughing drowns the parson's saw" then… well, yeah, we don't know yet.
- In this particular instance, a "saw" does not refer to a cutting device that you would use on those "logs" we met in the first stanza. Here a "saw" means something like a sermon, delivered by a parson (basically, a pastor or minister). So, when this guy is trying to preach, the cold and sick members of his congregation cough and interrupt.
- Ah, winter: always ruining everything. Well, that's what it seems like at least. If these folks are sick, why don't they stay home anyway?
- Just a thought.
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
- As we expect at this point, we get some more anaphora to tell us that we're still dealing with a giant "when x, then y" structure.
- Anyway, the sequence continues by saying when birds sit in the snow, and Marian's nose gets irritated, and when the crabs are good and roasted, then… ugh, we still don't know (yet).
- Before we find out, there's a lot to cover in these lines. First up, the birds are "brooding," which can mean anything from "to lay and hatch eggs" to protecting eggs to just hanging out, sitting down. It's the winter, so these birds probably aren't protecting any eggs. More likely, they're just chilling (get it?).
- Like Tom, Dick, and greasy Joan, Marian is just another generic name. Her "nose" looks "red and raw" because it's the winter, and cold weather really does a number on one's face.
- Now, for those "roasted crabs." At first, you may think it refers to actual crabs—you know, from the ocean, the guys on this show.
- Our sources have told us, however, that this is not the case. "Crabs" here refers to crab apples—a very sour, and much smaller, species of apple.
- The "bowl" mentioned here is a bowl of ale, so roasted crab apples are put in a bowl of ale, probably to give the ale a sweeter flavor, or to make the ale a little more festive.
- The "crabs" probably "hiss" because they are tossed into the ale while they're still piping hot from the oven, which makes that hissing sound.
- We know, apples in ale? Sounds crazy doesn't it? It's not. There are actually a bunch of recipes involving ale or beer and crab apples, it turns out. Enjoy (but only if you're 21 or older).
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
- Well, it turns out that exactly the same thing happens in the second stanza as happened in the first; when Marian's nose is red and people are coughing and the apples are hissing, that same "staring owl" hops on the mic and sings every night.
- He sings the exact same song, or "merry note," that he sang in the first stanza: "Tu-whit, to-who!" While he sings, "greasy Joan doth keel the pot," meaning she stirs the pot of stew or soup or whatever in order to cool it off just a bit.
- As we mentioned before, "greasy Joan" is probably just a generic name, the "greasy" part signifying her role as a cook or chef (they have a tendency to get greasy).
- As with the first stanza, this one has a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDEF, for the most part.
- And by "most part," we mean: Did you notice how similar "note" and "pot" look? Oh yeah, they both end with a T and they have an O in them. These words don't really rhyme at all, though, so this is an example of an eye rhyme, or slant rhyme, or half-rhyme, or "any word that's like half or slant rhyme." In other words, the T sound sort of rhymes, but the words themselves aren't similar enough to make this a "true" rhyme that we can signify in our little scheme.
- So, there you have it folks: a Shakespeare poem about how winter freezes everything (blood and milk and noses) and messes things up, but still somehow permits life (the birds, the owl, the pot of stew, the fire, and the folks who get to slurp down some sour apple beer—yum?).