A few years ago, in preparing a lecture on Jane Eyre for the second year students, I discovered that one of the critics on the novel had remarked thatJane Eyre had the best depiction of ‘cold' in all of English Literature, quoting a passage about the schoolgirls walking back to Lowood from church on a winter Sunday. I thought that that was a nonsensical pronouncement.
So I dove (dived) deep into my literary memory and my books and found a half dozen or so other (better) descriptions of cold in literature across the centuries. At the end of the lecture, I read both the critic's remark and the passage from Jane Eyre aloud. After which I read passages from Keats' sumptuous ‘Eve of St Agnes' with its benumbed beadsman and Virginia Woolf's Orlando, in which the Thames froze and life upon it was magic- the bare, ruined choirs of Shakespeare, where late the sweet birds sang.
I went on to discuss the value of having the (or a) history of English Literature in one's head. And then I read them a passage out of my favourite story, by anyone, ever: A.S. Byatt's ‘Cold' from her collection titled Elementals. This is when the students became most animated.
They became deeply involved in the depictions of cold in literature across the centuries - coming to my office for days - weeks - afterward with bits out of Jack London and Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Someone brought in The Wanderer and I believe another typed up a bit of Dickens and put it in my mailbox. Dylan Thomas, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Eliot, Blake, Whitman, Tennyson, Lawrence, Emerson, Blake, Nashe, and a hundred more - I still have a little box full of literary cold.
This is what engaged them, this pursuit of comparison, this voyage into interconnectedness, this quest after cold. This algid, bitter, frigid, boreal, cutting, ectothermic, piercing, frosty, bleak, frozen, gelid, biting, glacial, penetrating, haematocryal, arctic, hyperborean, icebox, intense, nipping, numbing, polar, brumal, rimy, hibernal, raw, shivery, sleety, snappy, snowy, stinging, Siberian, icy, wintry literature -all of it-infused them with fire, for days.
Cold. This is it.
Excerpt from "Cold" in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt:
"It was full moon. Everything was black and white and silver. The princess crept in her slippers between the beds of herbs, and then bent down impulsively and pulled off the slippers. The cold snow on the soles of her feet gave her the sense of bliss that most humans associate with warm frills of water at the edge of summer seas, with sifted sand, with sunny stone. She ran faster. Her blood hummed. Her pale hair floated in the wind of her own movement in the still night. She went under an arch and out through a long ride, running lightly under dark, white-encrusted boughs, into what in summer was a meadow.
She did not know why she did what she did next. She had always been decorous and docile. Her body was full of an electric charge, a thrill, from an intense cold. She threw off her silk wrap, and her creamy woollen nightgown, and lay for a moment, as she had imagined lying, with her naked skin on the cold white sheet. She did not sink, the crust was icy and solid. All along her body, in her knees, her thighs, her small round belly, her pointed breasts, the soft inner skin of her arms, she felt an intense version of that paradoxical burn she had received from the touch of the frosted window.
The snow did not numb Fiammarosa; it pricked and hummed and brought her, intensely, to life. When her front was quite chilled, she turned over on her back, and lay there, safe inside the form of her own faint impression on the untouched surface. She stared up, at the great moon with its slaty shadows on its white-gold disc, and the huge fields of scattered, clustered, far-flung glittering wheeling stars in the deep darkness, white on midnight, and she was, for the first time in her life, happy.
This is who I am, the cold princess thought to herself, wriggling for sheer pleasure in the snow-dust, this is what I want."
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance