“January” by Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on 15 October, 1830. A prolific writer, poet, and activist dedicated to the rights of Native Americans, she also happened to be a classmate of another—nowadays much more famous—Amherst poet: Emily Dickinson. The two women remained in contact throughout their lives, chiefly through correspondence.

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

Titled “January”, the following winter-themed poem opens the short collection called “A Calendar of Sonnets”, first published in 1891. The collection consists of a total of twelve sonnets, one for each month, and it includes lovely vignettes and engravings typical of the late 19th century publications. You can access the integral version of “A Calendar of Sonnets” on the Project Gutenberg website and download it in different formats.


O Winter! frozen pulse and heart of fire, 
What loss is theirs who from thy kingdom turn 
Dismayed, and think thy snow a sculptured urn 
Of death! Far sooner in midsummer tire 
The streams than under ice. June could not hire 
Her roses to forego the strength they learn 
In sleeping on thy breast. No fires can burn 
The bridges thou dost lay where men desire 
In vain to build. 
O Heart, when Love’s sun goes 
To northward, and the sounds of singing cease, 
Keep warm by inner fires, and rest in peace. 
Sleep on content, as sleeps the patient rose. 
Walk boldly on the white untrodden snows, 
The winter is the winter’s own release.

One of the reasons why I love this poem is Jackson’s likening of winter to a kingdom. When I was a child, I remember thinking of winter in similar terms: to me, winter felt like a domain of a queenly character who would bring a renewed sense of magic and wonder to the world (in my mother tongue, the word for ‘winter’ is of feminine grammatical gender).

The poet here draws attention to the life, streams and energy hidden under the layers of ice and snow. In the middle of winter, everything in nature may look very still, dead almost, but appearances are deceptive. As it turns out, winter is an essential part in the cycle of life. Plants and animals vitally depend on their winter rest, and so do we.


VOCABULARY EXERCISE

Match the following adjectives from the poem with their definitions or synonyms:

frozen  |  dismayed  |  inner  |  content  |  patient  |  untrodden

  • feeling unhappy, disappointed or distressed
  • untravelled; not walked on
  • inside, interior; hidden, secret
  • willing to wait; tolerant
  • turned into ice
  • happy and satisfied

To check your answers, please click here for the answer key.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Helen Hunt Jackson (entry in the Colorado Encyclopedia)

Helen Hunt Jackson: Author and Indian Advocate

Letters to the World: The Correspondence of Helen Hunt Jackson and Emily Dickinson (radio programme)

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