‘A Winter’s Tale’ by D.H. Lawrence is a twelve-line poem which can be separated into three sets of four lines for easier analysis. Each of these sets of lines is made up of one complete phrase ending in either a period or question mark. The poem also follows a consistent and structured rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefef.
Summary of A Winter’s Tale
The poem beings with the speaker describing the setting in which he is to meet his lover. The sun is “dull,” the snow has fallen heavily, covering even the longest pieces of grass, and there is a thick “scarf” of mist around the woods.
He can see his lover’s footprints in the snow and knows that she is waiting for him in the woods on the other side of the field. He loves her but is distressed by this fact. The two are soon to part and now he must tell her of their “inevitable farewell.”
Analysis of A Winter’s Tale
Yesterday the fields were only grey with scattered snow,
And now the longest grass-leaves hardly emerge;
Yet her deep footsteps mark the snow, and go
On towards the pines at the hills’ white verge.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker introduces the winter scene in which the dark, lovesick narrative will take place. He explains how only the night before did the snowfall cover more of the land than it had previously. Yesterday, he states, there was only a light “grey” covering on the ground. The snow was minimal, only hinting at what would come.
The light snow has passed and today when the speaker looks out at the “fields” he sees that the “longest grass-leaves” have been covered. This refers to the longest blades of grass in the field. They “hardly emerge” from the deep snow that has fallen overnight.
In the following lines, the narrator gives some more detail concerning the area he can see from his perspective. It is a large open space that has a forest of “pines,” thick with brush at the edge of a nearby hill. In the third line, the speaker introduces his lover to the narrative. While she is not defined in any consistent or clear way, a reader is able to interpret the speaker’s emotions regarding her. She is invisible to him. The only thing that he can see is the trail of footprints left in the deep snow.
He sees the prints as “mark[ing]” the snow. They show that she was there and has since passed on into the “pines at the hill’s white verge.” In later lines, it is explained that the woman in ‘A Winter’s Tale’ comes to the woods to speak with the narrator. She is there somewhere waiting for him.
I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf
Obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky;
But she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half
Sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.
In the next set of four lines, the speaker describes how even though he knows she is there in the woods he cannot see her. The footprints are the only physical evidence he has that his lover is out there waiting for him. This fact gives ‘A Winter’s Tale’ a dark, solemn, and somewhat mysterious tone. It does not seem like their relationship is on solid ground.
There is a thick mist settled over the land. This contributes to the trouble the narrator has in seeing where exactly his lover is. It is hanging around the forest like a “white scarf.” In this case, the scarf is playing two roles. It is acting to obscure and protect the woman, as will become clear.
The scarf of mist is not only blocking the woman from his view, it also hides the “dark wood and the dull orange sun.” The mysterious beauty of the mist is covering the scarier and more foreboding elements of the landscape. He cannot see the “dark woods” which he is soon to enter. Nor can he see the “dull…sun” which provides no heat, and hardly any light, to the day.
Even though these elements are all acting against the speaker he is able to sense that his lover is there. He feels that she is waiting for him, “impatient and cold.” She’s uncomfortable but apparently willing to bear it. In addition to being in a physically unpleasant situation, she is also emotionally distraught. She is “struggling” with the “Sobs” that rack her. They escape into the “sighs” of her “frosty” breath. The woman is clearly troubled by something, and it must concern the speaker as she has come to see him.
Why does she come so promptly, when she must know
That she’s only the nearer to the inevitable farewell;
The hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow –
Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?
In the last section, the speaker stops focusing on the details of the scene and turns his attention to the fact that she is there at all. He wants to know why it is that “she come[s] so promptly” to meet him. While he is glad to see her, something is soon going to come between them.
The next line speaks of an “inevitable farewell” the two must face. Now a reader is able to understand that the woman has come to bid her lover farewell. There is no way for the speaker to change what is going to happen, and he is frustrated by the fact that she has come so soon. She knows what he has to say and now he has to say it sooner.
The speaker makes his way through the deep snow. It is now acting as a way for him to track or follow his lover and as an impediment to his reaching her. Each step becomes more and more challenging. In the final lines, he asks himself, and his listener, why his lover has made this choice. He needs to know how he is supposed to face what is to come, especially as it is occurring sooner than he thought.