‘Winter’ is a short three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, or quatrains, and one set of six lines, or a sestet. The first two stanzas loosely follow the rhyming pattern of abba cddc, while the sestet is made up of full and half end rhymes that only partially correspond with one another. For example, Hunter has chosen to match up “want” and “scant,” and “frost” and “host” due to the fact that their endings contain the same letters, not because they rhyme.
The speaker begins by describing “Winter” as a “being,” or tyrant, of unlimited power. He can decimate the world with his “chilling breath” and raise a storm effortlessly. It is with this power that he freezes the world every year, casting countless people into deeper misery.
In the second stanza, the poet crafts a metaphor in an attempt to show the desperation of the poor. When winter is on its way, and a storm is beginning to form, many will do anything to find some form of shelter. In this piece, the “scared flocks” try to hunker within a “lowly vale” as some form of protection. As they are doing this, they are unaware that a weak and fragile tower is on the verge of falling on top of them. No matter where they go, death is waiting for them.
In the final six-line stanza, the speaker describes how those with financial means can find warmth and even cozy happiness in their homes by their fires. This is a life that many more do not have access to. For these “sons of want,” winter brings death and fear. Fate has sent them nothing but poverty, and even poverty in all her resilience is shaking with the chill of the winter months.
Analysis of Winter
Behold the gloomy tyrant’s awful form
Binding the captive earth in icy chains;
His chilling breath sweeps o’er the watery plains,
Howls in the blast, and swells the rising storm.
The speaker begins this piece by asking her readers to take a good look at winter’s form. She refers to winter as a “tyrant” who is so powerful, ruthless, and awe-inspiring, that he is “awful” and “gloomy.” This man-like entity is able to “Blind” the earth through the sheer force of his snow and ice and lock down all the life on the planet with “icy chains” whenever he chooses.
The poet has chosen to intricately personify winter, so much so that one might forget that it is a season and change in weather patterns the poem is about and not an actual man.
She continues to describe how with only his “chilling breath” he can create vast storms that cover the “watery plains.” He is in control of forces that determine life and death, and he can wield them effortlessly. The poet is able, through her choice of words, to fully depict and thereby allow the viewer to visualize, a dangerously cold storm blowing over an unprepared landscape.
See from its centre bends the rifted tower,
Threat’ning the lowly vale with frowning pride,
O’er the scared flocks that seek its sheltering side,
A fearful ruin o’er their heads to pour.
The second stanza begins near to where the first left off. The speaker is drawing the reader’s attention to the “centre” of the storm that is washing over this landscape and to a “rifted tower.” She has chosen to use the word “rifted” to show the tower’s fragility. It has become broke down and cracked fundamentally. The “tower” is a representation of the general state of the human race. In the moments of the storm, the tower is leaning. It is being blown, and further weakened by the winds of “Winter” and is leaning over a “vale.”
The “vale” is playing host to the poorest of humankind. They have come to this place searching for some kind of safety from the storm, only to have their lives further threatened by their depleted state. The tower is said to be leaning with a “frowning pride.” The curve of the buildings is reminiscent of a frown and is quite suited to the scene that is playing out below it.
The people are crowded together, every one desperate to find some shelter in the dangerous landscape they are forced to inhabit. All the while, “fearful ruin” is on the brink of pouring over their heads.
While to the cheerful hearth and social board
Content and ease repair, the sons of want
Receive from niggard fate their pittance scant;
And where some shed bleak covert may afford,
Wan poverty, amidst her meagre host
Casts round her haggard eyes, and shivers at the frost.
In the final stanza, the speaker has fully moved away from her depictions of a winter storm, to speak on the consequences that the coldest times of the year have for the poorest among us.
There are some when “Winter” comes, that can move closer to the “cheerful hearth simply.” Winter becomes, not something to fear, but a time to enjoy cozy warmth and “social board” amongst one’s family in friends. These people, those that are well off and able to provide themselves with this type of life, never find themselves without easy “repair.” There is no struggle to find safety or warmth, and it is ready and waiting for them whenever they need it.
In the third line, the speaker turns back to discussing the opposite side of the spectrum, the “sons of want;” the people who are accountable to their physical circumstances and to whom the coming of winter means an increase of suffering.
These people receive nothing from “fate” and anything they do have is “scant.” They do not have homes, personal wealth, or the ability to gain these things due to their circumstances. In the final lines, the speaker returns to the idea of shelter that was addressed in the second stanza. She imagines a “bleak” shelter, the best protection that one can afford, and sees the way that “Wan poverty” casts her eyes around the place. Even among this smallest of pleasures, there is nothing but suffering to come. Poverty herself is “shiver[ing]” at the frost that winter casts.
About Anne Hunter
Anne Hunter was born 1742 and was the daughter of a surgeon. She would marry another surgeon, John Hunter, with whom she had four children, two of whom died as babies. It was common for the Hunter household to play host to many different literary minds and be the source of many intellectual discussions.
Some of Hunter’s first published pieces were song lyrics, one of which, “Adieu ye streams that softly glide,” was published in two different songbooks. She would go on to collaborate with the composer Franz Joseph Haydn on many projects and contribute lyrics to his Canzonettas. Her first poetry was published anonymously in the 1790s. The collections, Poems and The Sports of Genii, were released in 1802 and 1804. These were the first to be published under the name Mrs. John Hunter. Anne Hunter died in 1821.