‘In drear-nighted December’ by John Keats is a three-stanza poem which is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. These octaves all adhere to a specific and consistent rhyme scheme. They follow a pattern of, ababcccd. Variants of this pattern repeat within the three stanzas, with the first and third lines rhyming in the first and second stanzas and the eighth line rhyming throughout in all three stanzas.
The poet has chosen to structure the poem in this way to allow for a feeling of continuity. The reader will come to expect a certain amount of repetition and consistency as they move from line to line.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the way a tree is able to live. Due to the fact that the tree does not have the capacity to remember what has previously happened to it, it is happier than any human could be. In the coldest month of the year, when it is being battered by the wind, it is unmoved. It does not pine for summer, or wish for a different life. It is lucky in this way.
In the second stanza, the speaker takes much of the same approach but in regards to a brook. This brook, just like the tree, does not remember. It might be frozen and unmoving now, but in the summer it will be free and rushing. It makes no difference to the water what state it is in.
In the final stanza, the speaker wonders if there has ever been a human being who could live in this same way, without the influence of memories. He declares that no, this is impossible. Or, at least no one has written down such experiences. Humans do not have the ability to “steel” or “numb” their senses against the present, or forget a better life they used to lead.
Analysis of In drear-nighted December
In drear nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity—
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.
The poet chose to begin this first stanza the same way that he begins the second, by utilizing the title of the poem, ‘In drear-nighted December.’ There is no way for the reader to become confused about when the events of the poem are taking place, at least when it comes to the season. The poet has left the exact context and physical location up for interpretation in an effort to allow any reader to project their own experiences onto the work. This makes the piece relatable to a wider audience.
The poet’s speaker describes the trees of winter as beaten and battered by the weather. He looks out upon the landscape and sees them as being “too happy.” They are unaware of the trauma they are enduring. This is emphasized by the fact that they do not remember a time before the winter began.
The speaker is able to recall the trees in all their “green felicity,” or happiness, and feels the change in their state intensely. The trees on the other hand are not able to suffer in this way. They have no memories.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes the trees’ ability to endure the winter. They are not broken or destroyed by the “sleety whistle” of the “north.” There is nothing the season can do to them that will keep them from budding in the spring. They will always return to their “prime,” with no memories of the winter. The trees exist within the circle of the seasons, able to bear and forget each one in turn.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.
In the second stanza, the speaker moves on to describe another element of the landscape which is battered and punished by the winter weather. He begins once again with the phrase, “in drear-nighted December,’ reminding his listener that the time period he is describing is still within the darkest, coldest part of the year.
He is now speaking of the “Too happy” brook which cannot remember a time before the frost came. Just like the trees spoken of in the first stanza, the brook is blessed with ignorance which allows it to live from one season to another without remembering better or worse times.
The brook can “ne’er,” or never, remember its “bubblings” from the spring and summer. It has forgotten “Apollo’s summer look.” This is a reference to the Greek god Apollo who was known as the god of sun and light, among many other things.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker reiterates that it is the brook’s “sweet forgetting” which allows it to exist unaffected in the harshest conditions. It is unbothered by the type of environment it moves through, or in this case, doesn’t move through as it freezes in the cold. It never worries or frets about “frozen time.”
Ah! would ‘twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy—
But were there ever any
Writh’d not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.
In the final stanza the poet changes up the pattern of his lines and begins with the phrase, “But were there ever any / Writh’d not of passed joy?” He is wondering about the general human population of the world and if there has ever been anyone, who like the trees and brooks, did not writhe over the lost joy of the past. He is speaking on a feeling that humans have and the other forces and biological elements of the world do not, that of loss.
Humans have the ability to remember better times and feel the loss of those times. In the final four lines of the poem the speaker comes to the conclusion that no, there has never been anyone who has felt this way. Or, he states, no one who has ever said it “in rhyme.”
Never has there been someone “not to feel it” in the darkest of times when there is no one to “heal it.” One’s emotions are always raw and real when remembering brighter days, especially when there is no one to heal you or improve your mood. Additionally, he states that within the human population no one has the ability to “steel,” or fortify themselves against their senses. One cannot “numb” what they feel.