Study Guide

Winter Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    "Winter" is in many ways a nature poem; there are owls and birds and descriptions of winter scenes (icicles, snow). But it's not just about some frozen forest, but about what people do in this winter wonderland. It's about how humans make their way through the bleakest time of the year. Yeah, life's basic necessities (milk, water, blood) are frozen or chilled, but people manage to overcome nature's lack of hospitality and soldier on.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does this poem compare to other "nature" poems you've read, like say, John Keats's "To Autumn" or Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"?
    2. We've got man. We've got the natural world. Is one of them more important than the other in this poem? Does one seem to be more of a "focus"? How can you tell?
    3. Is it strange that the birds are just "brooding" in the snow? Is their ability to sit in the snow supposed to contrast with how difficult winter is for people? Why or why not?
    4. What does the owl symbolize, really? Cuteness? Wisdom? Predatory instincts? Song? What parts of the poem support your choice?

    Chew on This

    The natural world is man's friend and enemy—his frenemy. In this poem's tough winter, the forest furnishes apples and logs for survival.

    At one with nature? Puh-lease. While humans can learn to adapt to nature, or deal with it, man and nature will always be fundamentally separate.

  • Death

    If spring is all about life (new birds are born, flowers bloom, the weather gets nicer), winter is all about death. Note all the images of death, or semi-death, in this poem: frozen things (icicles, milk), cold things (blood, snow), owls (they hunt), etc. Sure, "Winter" isn't all about actual death and dying, but the lifelessness and coldness of winter cannot help but make us think of death. Cheery, right?

    Questions About Death

    1. This poem totally associates winter and death. Is that something our culture normally does? Or is this Shakespeare's own little twist on things? Why do you think so?
    2. In what ways is this poem not really about death? 
    3. An owl is singing, and birds are "brooding." Are these supposed to be indications that spring is right around the corner? What else might do these "happy" things symbolize or suggest?
    4. What do you make of the coughing? Is it neutral, bad, just somebody clearing their throat? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Life1, Death 0. Although death is everywhere, life always manages to come out on top in "Winter."

    Death is scary and all that, but it's also a natural part of life. The owls, for example, need to eat. Sorry about that, little mouse.

  • The Home

    If one part of "Winter" is the desolate, winter landscape, the other part is some nice little cottage where various homely activities are taking place (cue the holiday music). "Greasy Joan" is stirring a pot of something (probably stew or soup), Dick is carrying logs (for a fire in the hall), and there are crab apples in a bowl of ale. Despite a seriously cold and rough winter outside, the "home" is doing just fine. In fact, it's the rough weather outside that makes the home-y inside so much more inviting.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What kind of home do the people mentioned in this home live in anyway? A cabin? A cottage? Is there any way to tell?
    2. Who is "greasy Joan" anyway? What does she contribute to the theme of the home?
    3. Do you think all these people are part of the same family or household? Why or why not? What does that suggest about the home and family?
    4. Why is there no mention of the owl's or the birds' home anyway? Do they not have homes?

    Chew on This

    Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. The warm, inviting, homely atmosphere subtly described in this poem wouldn't be the same if it weren't snowing and freezing outside.

    Home is where the heart beats. The home is the primary symbol of life in this poem of death.