Winter solstice close at hand. In the northern hemisphere, it is the long awaited return of the sun, the sign of rebirth and the renewed fertility of the world. Halls festooned with evergreen and holly, the symbols of everlasting life in the face of harsh winter. Mistletoe hung to invite kisses fostering the fecundity hidden beneath the sleeping surface of the winter world.
Still, even as we sense the calendar tipping towards a new regreening, many places remain in winter’s frozen clutches–with “water like a stone”, with people still scrabbling for fuel as “snow lay ’round about, deep and crisp and even”. Some seasonal carols tell us this.
At this moment of deepest darkness, the “longest evening of the year”, midwinter holidays are bright ‘holy days’, filled with light as a ward against midwinter darkness. Chanukah’s menorah is set as a beacon of increasing light against the backdrop of darkness, a reminder of success in the long ago recapture and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Christian celebration of Christmas being a holy day focusing on a birth which is itself the symbol of humanity’s spiritual rebirth. These religious observations stand on the ancient foundation of the pagan Yule and all its incarnations, probably stretching back for almost as long as there have been people living on this tilted axis globe.
In northern climes, the snow can seem like an ocean of white, like water surrounding us, undulating away in all directions. This can become overwhelming, even speaking to us of what we need to hear. In Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”, a boy’s growing pervasive obsession with snow that only he can see represents his increasing retreat and isolation from the world around him.
And with that effort, everything was solved, everything became all right: the seamless hiss advanced once more, the long white wavering lines rose and fell like enormous whispering sea-waves, the whisper becoming louder, the laughter more intensely maniacal.
“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story-shut your eyes-it is a very small story-a story that gets smaller and smaller-it comes inward instead of opening like a flower-it is a flower becoming a seed-a little cold seed-do you hear” We are leaning closer to you”-
The hiss was now becoming a roar-the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow-but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.*
Many critics have described this story as a portrait of deepening schizophrenia. A Jungian analyst might tell us that such visions or dreams represent profound emotional shifts, with the snow, a vision of a kind of water submerging the world.
Amongst the catalogue of Jungian archetypes, water most often represents emotional states which may range from raging seas to deep and quiet pools. Aspects of snow, desert, ocean. The surface of our inner ocean may be variously frozen or heaving, glass or tumult. Inner water speaks to us in ways that only we can hear. It shifts and roils in ways that only we can know.
For water, its reflections and its depths, cannot remain entirely external to us. Its conception and its very presence is reflexive. It flows into and through our natural surroundings, and it also extends back into our being. It represents our connection with flow, with attention, spirit, seasons, and time. “The waters are the source of all potentialities in existence; the source and grave of all things in the universe; the undifferentiate; the unmanifest; the first form of matter”.**
In literature and myth, water is often associated with the power and subtlety of sexual union. While seashells are often said to symbolise female sexuality, the ebb and flow of their watery source also parallels human passions, and the sea is ultimately the birthplace of all life on earth. In its reproductive aspects, water is seductive. In Homer’s Ulysees, on his long journey home from the Trojan War, Ulysees meets the sirens, whose irresistable call lures sailors to their watery doom. Homer’s Ulysees, in order to hear the song, has his crew tie him to a mast while they block their own ears against the call.
While the sea has its siren song, in dream interpretation water tends to represent our emotions or our deepest passions. Dreaming of rain, of swimming, of a taking a bath, or even of shoveling snow may suggest any number of possibilities, all of which may illustrate our underlying emotional state.
But when I came, alas, to wive,Twelfth Night 5.1.420-3
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.
With all the bluff and counter, all the masking we perform in life, eventually it becomes difficult to swagger one’s way through the rain. Our emotional states, as perhaps the most defining characterisitic of our humanity, tend to catch up with us. We shove emotions aside at our peril. Eventually, they tend to catch up with us, to overwhelm us.
The idea of drowning may take this to its logical conclusion. Drowning in one’s emotions. Being overwhelmed by the water or the secret snow. Water as a grave, as a resting place, is often visually compelling. In Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, the near drowning represents a rebirth, a splitting of the new soul from its old attachments:
Here, we are drawn into the depths with Ada McGrath, as the character is literally roped to the emotional baggage of her sinking piano. In the scene, we go through a drowning, a baptism, a cleansing, before we are pulled back up onto the boat. The water signifies the purification of rebirth, like the rededication of a temple, or a birth offering a renewed chance for redemption.
Baptism is a regreening in the spiritual winter, the water washing away old emotional and spiritual weights and attachments, leaving us cleaner, lighter, and more ascendant.
Water’s aspects converge in drowning. Death in water combines renewal with what is sometimes an awful finality. Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet puts the event at some remove from the audience, rendering it like a painting of a forlorn ending replete with imagery of both life and death.
There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES Alas, then she is drowned.
QUEEN Drowned, drowned.
The drowned, drowned, drowned cadence of the language near the end of the scene punctuates the finality. That the drowning happens offstage, distances the event both in place and time from the onstage moment. That Gertrude does not name Ophelia in the description of events further isolates the drowned character, underscoring her loneliness. The description pointedly weaves life with death together. Profuse flower imagery includes a phallic blossom which hints at fertility but is also called “dead men’s fingers”. Ophelia’s clothes “awhile they bore her up”, but moments later, “heavy with their drink,/Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay/To muddy death”.
The language and the dramatic framework also suggest a greater matrix in which human life is embedded. Human trophies are merely weeds, and the brook perenially weeps, suggesting the mourning attendant on impermanence. The episode suggests that perhaps our lives are mere extensions, fantastic garlands that cover underlying truths, or reflections of an ever changing sky.
These moments in the plays offer potential historical reflections as well. Possible inspirations for Shakespeare’s Ophelia are numerous. Oxford historian, Dr Steven Gunn, found a coroner’s record of the drowning of Jane Shaxpere in a millpond near Stratford upon Avon in 1569.*** Two and a half year old Jane, perhaps a cousin of William’s, was apparently picking marigolds when she fell into the stream. Similarly, a woman intriguingly named Katherine Hamlet reportedly drowned near Tidington, a village near enough to Stratford that it is walkable, while fetching water from the Avon in 1579. And this blog has previously mentioned the local Stratford story about Margaret Clopton, from a Stratford family Shakespeare would have known. Reportedly suffering over a disappointed love affair, Margaret supposedly drowned herself in a watery depression which still may be seen in the Welcombe Hills just north of Stratford town–in a little hollow now known as ‘Margaret’s well’.
The point is not to sort through potential foundations of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Neither is is it, nor could it, to diminish the sadness of those long ago deaths. Rather, the point is to remind us that winter–our present winter–represent a kind of alpha and omega. The season is a flow, a flux, like water which represents all the directions at once. The death of the old year marks a Phoenix turning point, consumed in water in place of fire. Submergence taking the place of conflagration.
If this moment can have a point, it may be that in endings, in finality, even in past tragedies, we can perceive new direction, a kind of rebirth or regreening of the world. We see this not only in terms of Shakespeare’s works, but also in our present. If it it true that nothing is ever wasted, then death may also be seen as the winter solstice of our collective mythical landscape–the pivotal well in which we drown the books of our past so that our new and unknown future lives may then begin.
After solstice, once the sun has turned its corner in the sky, the cold winter begins to retreat. This may be gradual. Ice slowly becomes water, flows into earth, and that muddy death becomes a bed for new life. Kisses beneath the mistletoe engender new sprouts. New affection, new connection, and even new generations on the earth. One creative vision of the impetus or spark for Shakespeare’s winter play, Twelfth Night, transforms the very idea of drowning, of emotional and spiritual loss. As it does in the play, love’s loss becomes connection, and the death of the old year again signifies the birth of the new.
Few people I know will be sorry to see the year 2020 end. Rife with profound difficulties on all fronts, this year has been, in many ways, a political, environmental, economic, and public health disaster. The year itself has become its own meme about limitation, divisiveness, isolation, loss, and disappointment. In many ways, it has shipwrecked humanity and set us all on the shores of an unknown world.
Yet, in a sense, we are all constantly shipwrecked anew on the shores of Shakespeare’s Illyria. Life is this way–an ebb and flow. We feel that our vanished loved ones are truly gone just as Viola supposes her brother, Sebastian, to have been lost at sea. In a profound way, however, our loved ones are not and cannot be gone from us, because they are woven into the fabric of us, etched into our being.
In the wide world, as water flows on to water and into cloud and rain, our memory shapes us and the world we know in an ongoing rainfall of creation. Kisses stolen beneath winter’s green mistletoe in one sense represent the promise of our future. Let us bestow those sparks of love liberally. Let us always bring love’s needed light, but most especially at those times when our long winter has been so dark.
Here’s wishing everyone an abundance of love, light, and peace in the next year and in all the years to come. With continued patience, kindness, understanding, and care, we really can build a better world for ourselves, and for those who will come after us.
*Aiken, Conrad. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1934. His works, including his poetry, are widely reprinted and readily available in print and on the internet.
**Cooper, Jean. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.