O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.
He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world.
Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms, till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.
This poem is one of Blake’s earlier poetical sketches and was written sometime between 1769 and 1777. I decided to read it because it seemed appropriate, now that we are in December.
I had to do a little research to grasp the deeper meaning of this poem. For me, the key to understanding the poem is in understanding the symbolism of Mount Hecla (or Mount Hekla). Hecla is Iceland’s most active volcano and, according to the article I read on Wikipedia, it was considered to be the gateway to Hell during the time when Blake was writing.
After the eruption of 1104, stories (which were probably spread deliberately through Europe by Cistercian monks) told that Hekla was the gateway to Hell… The Flatey Book Annal wrote of the 1341 eruption that people saw large and small birds flying in the mountain’s fire which were taken to be souls. In the 16th century Caspar Peucer wrote that the Gates of Hell could be found in “the bottomless abyss of Hekla Fell”. The belief that Hekla was the gate to Hell persisted until the 1800s. There is still a legend that witches gather on Hekla for Easter.
Once I understood the mythology surrounding Hecla, the poem made sense. Winter is the dark, cold, desolate time of the year, associated with death. Below the frozen wasteland is the fiery pit, pressing against the unbreakable doors, until the moment when it can burst through with explosive power, raining down fire and brimstone. But in the end, the beast is driven back down into the caves of sulfur, where is will wait until the next time it can break through the adamantine doors.
Maybe it is my anticipation for the release of the second Hobbit film, “The Desolation of Smaug,” but this poem also conjures an image of a dragon living below the volcano in the frozen north. I can picture the monster sleeping in its cave, but at any moment, it can awaken and burst forth in a cloud of fire, smoke, and ash.
This was not what I expected when I opened to the poem. I expected something dealing more with the season and the spiritual aspect of winter. Still, I loved this poem. Blake’s poetry never ceases to inspire me.