Begin the Year with a January Poem from Longfellow’s Calendar

three ducks captured in flight before a pale blue sky and snow-covered trees

Much 19th Century poetry is rich in botanical elements and references to nature. Because of this, I selected Helen Jackson’s Calendar of Sonnets as a theme last year.

This year’s theme comes from another American author: Henry Longfellow. There’s a chance you’ve encountered him before, but not many people are aware that in 1880 he wrote The Poet’s Calendar. (All that year with the exception of March in 1878.) Across this set of 12 poems that are brief but dense and potent, Longfellow employs vivid imagery from the natural world, refers to human activity associated with the time of year, and makes rich allusions to Greek and Roman mythology and other figures from history to illustrate and characterize each month as it passes by. Here we are!

a dramatic view of a snowy river bend with a setting sun, leafless trees to the left, and evergreen trees off in the distance to the right

JANUARY

Janus am I; oldest of potentates;
Forward I look, and backward, and below
I count, as god of avenues and gates,
The years that through my portals come and go.

I block the roads, and drift the fields with snow;
I chase the wild-fowl from the frozen fen;
My frosts congeal the rivers in their flow,
My fires light up the hearths and hearts of men.

a winter scene by Dutch painter Aert van der Neer showing men on the ice of a frozen canal near a village
Winter Landscape with Kolf Players and Skaters on a Frozen Canal (1650-1653) by Aert van der Neer

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