The poem is fairly simple, using imagery that all readers can appreciate. The poet discusses natural scenes, like rivers, birds, flowers (like blue-bells and orchids), and more. He’s seeking out a place where the beauty of summer and warmth never fade. It’s likely that this is standing in for a broader ideal that may take a different form other than that which is presented in ‘After the Winter.’
Explore After the Winter
‘After the Winter’ by Claude McKay is a beautiful and simple piece of poetry about an idealized fugue on the “summer isle” away from winter.
The speaker spends the first stanza initiating his dream and suggesting that when winter is over, they’re going to be able to “turn” their faces toward the summer isle and forget about the cold, inhospitable past. When they go towards the summer isle, they’ll find peace. There will be everything that one could hope to find in the natural world. This includes rivers, flowers, cotton trees, and more. The poet uses personification to depict these scenes as well as good examples of imagery.
Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.
In the first stanza of ‘After Winter,’ the speaker begins by noting that sometime in the future, things are going to change. He’s filled with hope as he considers what the world is going to be like when the “trees have shed their leaves,” and he and the listener turn their faces “Toward the summer isle.” When winter comes and passes, the two are going to be able to step away from their lives to a place where “bamboos spires the shafted grove / And wide-mouthed orchids smile.” This last line is an example of personification. It imbues the orchids with a human characteristic—the ability to smile. In these lines, readers should also note the examples of alliteration, particularly the repetition of sibilance.
And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.
The second stanza of ‘After the Winter’ starts with the word “And,” ensuring the reader is aware that the poem is picking up where it left off in the previous stanza. Once they’re there on their summer isle, they’re going to “seek the quiet hill” and find a place to be at peace. There, they’ll find “the laughing crystal rill,” another example of personification, and the working “droning bee.” The sense-imagery in these lines is quite effective. The poet is painting a scene that’s beautiful to imagine and conveys a very clear sense of peace.
There are also examples of anaphora in these lines with the repetition of “And” at the beginning of the lines. It begins with lines one, three, four, five, and eight. This helps create another literary device, accumulation. The speaker is building up features of his life with “you,” and each adds to the overall experience.
He tells the listener that together, they’re going to build a cottage where they can live “Beside an open glade” with “blue-bells blowing near” and “ferns that never fade.” Alliteration is again quite important in these last lines. It adds to the overall feeling of rhythm in the poem and, therefore, the feeling of peace the speaker is aiming to create.
Structure and Form
‘After the Winter’ by Claude McKay is a two-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, changing end sounds between the two stanzas. The meter changes throughout the poem, ranging from around seven to nine syllables per line.
Throughout ‘After the Winter,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “birds beneath” and “summer” and “spire” in the first stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines three and four of the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet creates particularly interesting and compelling descriptions. For example, “Where bamboos spire the shafted grove / And wide-mouthed orchids smile.”
The purpose is to share an ideal future, a dream, that the speaker is engaging in. Whether or not this future is possible isn’t the point. By speaking with passion and certainty, the speaker and his listener are able to enjoy and imagine that their life is going to turn out this way.
The themes are nature, peace, and the future. Finding peace is an incredibly important part of this poem. McKay’s speaker spends most of it considering the perfect scenario for himself and the person he’s talking to and about.
The tone is peaceful and hopeful. The speaker is looking towards the future and feeling like together, he and the listener are going to be able to make a good life for themselves. Once they can get away from the winter, they’ll be content on the summer isle around the blossoming flowers and trees.
The speaker is someone who is quite hopeful about the future or is at least willing to put their dreams into words. They’re speaking to someone, likely someone they’re in a relationship with, and expressing their desire to make a life with this person away from the coldness of winter and that of broader society.
Readers who enjoyed ‘After Winter’ should also consider reading other Claude McKay poems. For example:
- ‘Harlem Shadows’ – describes their experience while also acknowledging their strength.
- ‘America’ – explores the good parts of the country, the strength and vigor it contains as well as the bad.
- ‘Enslaved’ – turns bitterness, hatred, and rage into an eloquent art form that anyone can read and wonder at.