So. Winter’s chill attendants walk the earth
And starveling days die young in mist and fire.
Above the leafless trees black rook-bands wheel:
Their raucous evensong laments the sun
That sinks behind the sodden, shadowed wood
And night spreads like a sickness through the land.
How long it seems since Spring smiled on this land,
When wild flowers bloomed on banks, and long-cold earth
Stirred in its sleep, awakening the wood
Where bluebells, like smoke from some unseen fire
Swirled round the birches’ feet; the lusty sun
Bent cheerfully to turning heaven’s wheel.
For months to come the soil will know no wheel:
The rain has made a mire of this land
That, back in summer, cracked beneath a sun
That breathed its heat upon the gasping earth.
Did we once walk bare-limbed in fields of fire,
And crave the shelter of the drowsy wood?
Hard to recall how Autumn dressed the wood
In gaudy gold and copper as the wheel
Sent summer southwards. Then Orion’s fire
Blazed higher, and the warmth seeped from the land.
The birds felt mystic stirrings in the earth
And took their mapless pathways to the sun.
And now we stand our furthest from the sun:
The twilight settles quickly in the wood,
And in the tilt and aspect of the Earth
We reach the moment where the ancients’ wheel
Begins its long roll back. They blessed the land
And filled their twelve Yule nights with feast and fire.
And still we’re drawn to that ancestral fire;
Still counting down the days until the sun
Returns to drive the darkness from the land
And set the new leaves bursting in the wood.
Still following the slow spin of the wheel
That drives the deepest engines of the earth.
I’ll leave my fire to stand watch in the wood
Await another Sun, as night-birds wheel
Above the land, and Winter claims the earth.
I was inspired to tackle the sestina by that peerless craftsman John Stevens; with its strict pattern of repeating line endings, it seemed the right form for a solstice poem. I’ve tried writing a sestina before, but it’s always defeated me: I hope it’s ‘honours even’ this time. I probably made it more difficult for myself than was strictly necessary by writing it in iambic pentameter, but I love the rich feel of that most English of metres. And for the really keen-eyed among you, the ‘So.’ at the beginning of the first line is a respectful nod to Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon tradition. (To see how a sestina should be done, please read John’s terrific The Watch)