Stopping by woods

In the northern hemisphere days begin to lengthen on my birthday, 29 December, giving a few extra moments that light up the darkest period of the year just time passes the double-headed Janus, to enter a new one. Yesterday evening we turned off the electric light and looked at one another in candlelight. Imagine. George Eliot’s Dorothea (my favourite heroine) in Middlemarch would have seen everyone in this light on every evening in her life. A figure carrying a candle to light long gloomy corridors connecting rooms darkening at dusk, that disturbing time when darkness begins to banish light.

I have been given a book with a poem to read for every night of the year. Its cover and thick, cream-coloured pages with an oak leaf carrying a number on the bottom right-hand corner urging you to touch it and turn the page. Poems to turn into a dream or to guide you into a new day.

The sun is shining on the bare chestnut tree branches casting patterns on the houses across the street. The poem for today is by Robert Frost and talks of a horse and snow, of yesteryear. A decade ago there were snowfalls after Christmas in the heart of winter and children were out on the medieval common pastures shrieking with delight as their sledges – or tin trays – speeded down the hollows fringed with prickly hawthorn bushes.

Expectations are an offspring of hope. I glance anxiously at the damp brown leaves that are blown in piles against the railings round the churchyard. Are they keeping the daffodil bulbs warm, or suffocating them? Spring will tell. There are snowdrop bulbs hidden there too, waiting for the moment soon when they shall push out into the light from under the rotting chestnut leaves. Behind it stands the slenderer silver birch with long, pliable branches that almost touch the ground, its bark peeling to reveal a lighter layer beneath. Further back still is the taller, wide-canopied copper beech. Not long ago there was a move to have it chopped down because its roots were said to be damaging the foundations of the Minster’s north transept. Fortunately, nothing has been done and concern has shifted to a leak in the roof. Slates have slipped – or has someone been stealing to sell them? That has happened.

A few years ago, I was invited to a meal served in a room entirely lit by gas lights installed in the 19th century. It was a strange experience. Faces looked flatter, leathery, more like Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, but less wrinkled a female guest noted, with a touch of relief. Gas lights do not flicker like candles, almost shimmering the darkness itself.

I enjoy imagining George Eliot sitting down to write my favourite novel, Middlemarch, by candlelight. Sometimes I place her inside a woodland cottage on the estate managed for the local landowners by her father. It would have been like the one I saw in a painting by Gainsborough hanging in a dark corner of a country house visited years ago, but painted into my memory. |I pictured it this morning after I opened a Christmas present of a book with a poem for every night of the year. The one for today, written by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963), is simple but holds its own charm.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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