Winter Dreams

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It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood –
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It scatters like the Birds –
Condenses like a Flock –
Like Juggler’s Figures situates
Upon a baseless Arc –

It traverses yet halts –
Disperses as it stays –
Then curls itself in Capricorn –
Denying that it was –

Emily Dickinson

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Listening List

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”), II. Land of Gloom, Land of Mist

Symphony No. 1 didn’t come easily to Tchaikovsky. He wrote to his younger brother

At eleven o’clock, I either give a lesson until one [o’clock], or tackle the symphony (which, by the way, is going sluggishly) … I always return home by twelve [midnight]; write letters or the symphony, and read in bed for a long time… My nerves are extremely fraught again, for the following reasons: 1) my lack of success in composing the symphony; 2) Rubinstein and Tarnovskii… spend all day trying to torment me… 3) being unable to shake off the thought that I might soon die without even managing to complete the symphony.

A Spotify playlist containing two versions of Symphony No. 1 may be found here.


Credits: The version of poem 291 quoted here is Version E (1883) from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Reading Edition, R. W. Franklin, ed. (1999). Version A (1862) may be found here. In Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentaries, Helen Vendler writes, of the difference between the two versions, “When Dickinson decides to cut, it usually means that on rereading she notices that her imagination has digressed, in its love of play, from its basic aim.” (p. 108). The quotation from Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother may be found here.

30 thoughts on “Winter Dreams

  1. David

    Perfection x 3: your wonderful photos, the poem, the slow movement. I reckon that’s Tchaikovsky’s first out and out masterpiece (the movement, I mean, rather than the whole symphony, which is let down by the finale – still interesting, as a depressive-manic progress which most captures the difficulties under which the work was composed). What a great, endless melody; what colours as it passes from flute-adorned horn to oboe to violas and so on).

    Here we have had no real winter as yet, just rain and grey over the Xmas period, though snow is now promised. So pleased to see you back, though of course our exchanges have kept it all nice and warm.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Your description of the slow movement—the piece as a whole, in fact, is a treasure in itself. While gathering the material for this post, I found another description by you of the slow movement (in a CD review) which seems to me exactly right: “The best of the 26-year old Tchaikovsky’s authentic inspiration is to be found in the slow movement’s long-limbed melody.” My exploration of Tchaikovsky continues, with pleasure, all thanks to you.

      It’s interesting to me that Dickinson (1830-1886) and Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) were fairly close contemporaries. I wonder what music she might have listened to or played—something I’ve yet to explore. Another interesting, though purely coincidental, parallel is that both Dickinson and Tchaikovsky reworked the pieces noted here: Dickinson between 1862 and 1883, Tchaikovsky between 1866 and 1883 (if my source for the latter isn’t leading me astray, that is). Of no real consequence, I suppose, but I enjoy imagining this transatlantic conjuring of winter dreams during the same period.

      1. David

        Gosh, Sue, you are diligent. The connections are fascinating to think about, of course – even the revisions. Re Dickinson settings, I can’t abide the Copland songs, but I am so haunted by the centrepiece and finale of John Adams’s Harmonium (settings of ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ and ‘Wild Nights’). We had a superb Adams concert last night conducted by The Man and culminating in the stupendous Harmonielehre (review over on The Arts Desk).

        Today the whole country has closed down because of the snow. Red warning for Wales, apparently.

        By the way, I now access your site with the greatest of ease. But I now have a Calgon ad gushing as I write – I wasn’t sure you were aware of these rather horrid ads. They’re not very ‘you’…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          I love those Harmonium settings! And of course as soon as I saw your comment, I had to rush over to the Arts Desk. Found your commentary on Harmonielehre particularly interesting. I think I may like the piece as a whole rather more than you may, but I would say that, while I feel the second movement fits in the whole, I’m not as carried off by it as the other two. Did you know, BTW, that Upshaw is at Bard, heading the graduate vocal program? So much talent congregated there! I hope you may come again one day for the summer fest. (This year it’s Stravinsky, as you probably are aware.)

          As for the snow your way, it seems British grit won out when it came to the concert featuring Qigang Chen’s work. I gather from the opening announcements that they had to do a bit of fancy footwork in re missing musicians, but the show went on, and I was listening at this end. Qigang Chen was there to take a bow at the end, too. I am surprised how long it took for the piece to receive its London premiere. It seemed to be very well received. As you know, I do love that piece and was thrilled to hear it live in Wales, particularly in the context in which it was presented, and with Qigang Chen there as well.

          I am relieved to know my fix over here has solved the loading problem (knocking all possible wood) and grateful for your reports either way, or I would never know! Speaking of which, on the subject of the Calgon ad, oy! Yes, very not me, to say the least. I am glad to report that a fine WordPress-using friend has just alerted me to a simple means by which to dispense with them, and the deed is done (or at least I hope so).

      2. Nadia Ghent

        A detail from Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson that has stayed with me is her quotation from one of Emily’s letters in which she describes going to hear Jenny Lind sing (p.55):”…how the rain did not abate, how we walked in silence to the old Edwards Church and took our seats in the same, how Jennie came out like a child and sang and sang again, how bouquets fell in showers, and the roof was rent with applause–how it thundered outside, and inside with the thunder of God and of men–judge ye which was the loudest-how we all loved Jenny Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t fancy that so well as we did her–no doubt it was very fine–but take some notes from her “Echo”–the Bird sounds from the “Bird Song” and some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee.” (L 46) Howe poignantly writes that Jenny Lind may have been the only professional musician that Emily Dickinson is known to have heard: Emily was twenty-one when she attended this concert. And yet she had to have gotten her sense of musicality somewhere…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Nadia: I remember being struck by this passage when I read Howe’s book. Thank you so much for highlighting it here. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Dickinson played piano (which wouldn’t be surprising). It would be interesting to follow the trail of this, wouldn’t it?

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    The snow which we had has, like the proverbial army defeated, retreated, but even as we write this and listen, yet again, to this wonderful, melancholic piece by Tchaikovsky more is promised for later tonight and looking ahead we anticipate white on white and cold on cold for some time to come.

    This is a wonderful post both for its music, its poetry and for the most atmospheric, and very striking images. All so very goodly indeed.

    Tonight in an hour or so, as you will almost certainly know, we are to the Bard concert to which we are looking forward with such pleasure and joy. The Friday night party was such a happy occasion and one about which we will post. You were, of course, much talked about!!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane & Lance: Our snow here faded after a week, very much the “proverbial army defeated,” (though there is plenty of winter left for snow to make a reappearance). As for the Bard concert, of course now we have your wonderful post, complete with photographs, of the event and the festivities coming up to it. I look forward to getting eyewitness reports from Dávid Nagy and Sabrina Tabby at the next Contemporaneous concert, too.

  3. friko

    Dream on, dear Susan.
    Looking out on and crunching through this beautiful winter landscape and coming home to listen to Tchaikovsky must be a very great pleasure.

    We have had a little snow this evening, it may even still be there in the morning because the temperatures have finally turned wintery. What we lack is your life enhancing blue skies.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: May blue skies come your way, if they haven’t already. The week following that in the photographs, we had several gray and misty days. Now the skies are back to blue, though it’s also back to very cold. The places where the pictures were taken were Buttercup Farm, a favorite place to walk, and the last one from the Walkway over the Hudson, with its vast views. Lovely all times of year.

  4. Elizabeth

    As you read Emily Dickinson, do you as well have moments of being simple, quiet, and small enough – perhaps even shy enough – to listen to chamber music (dare I ask, early music)? If you can reach into your memory archives and find such a moment, it would be interesting to hear to you speak of it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: such an interesting question, and one I’m not sure I can answer. I realized, after considering it a bit, that part of what stumped me is that I’m not sure I associate either ED or chamber music with small, simple, or shy–I think of ED’s Wild Nights or Shostakovich’s String Quartets, for example. But perhaps this, from my old blog, might serve as a sort of proxy for an answer: Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hilary

    Hi Susan .. another educating post … I do so look forward to coming back and listening to some of your suggestions – once I get life sorted out.

    Snow on snow – we had very little Sunday night … but it conformed to snowing on my birthday – so I was grateful I could brag about it always snowing on the 13th … however (tomorrow) – the 18th and 19th look as though the blanket of white will descend once again … more in the Welsh Marches and Midlands .. but there’s snow in the Netherlands ..

    I love the “then curls itself in Capricorn, denying that it was” …

    So pleased you can comment again … and finally I might be back blog-calling again …

    Love your snow pictures and as Friko says .. we could do with your blue sky! Cheers for now – Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: so glad you are on the mend! From what I hear, snow has come your way today in a very big way. The curls of Capricorn passage is a lovely one, isn’t it? Stay warm and dry!

  6. leslie land

    Lovin’ them boidies, dearie. Great shot! Also great post (as usual). Hoping to go sliding over the snow before it melts away, and having this handsome blue sky portrait is definitely an encouragement…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Yes, fine boidies indeed they are, and so glad they posed so well. (Truth be told, they were waiting to be fed, so they weren’t about to move, now, were they?) Hope you got some sliding in!

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    I saw your title and even before scrolling down I immediately thought about Tchaikovsky’s first symphony. I hadn’t heard it in a while, so I was happy to listen to the slow movement, lovely as it is. I enjoy the music—oh so Russian—but can’t imagine living through a Russian winter.

    1. Lowell Murphree

      This is an interesting meta-poetic response to the question you raise regarding lines 7 & 8. ” Specific words like ‘rails’ and ‘Ruffles’ in the first version disappear in favor of more abstract terms such as ‘situates,’ ‘Arc,’ and ‘traverses,’ as if the poem were no longer serving to record a remembered scene, but rather to analyze an intellectual problem. The wheeling, circular motion introduced through the image of the juggler’s ‘Arc” is recapitulated at the poem’s end ads the departing storm curls itself into the constellation Capricorn, on the southern horizon, a movement that is symbolically equivalent to the poem’s own passage from its heavenly point of origin in the “north” to a new, independent status in the carnal south.” Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry, By James Robert Guthrie, Page 151 (Google Books)

      Whether you accept all Guthrie’s thesis about the transformation of Emily’s approach to her poems as reflective of a change in her perception of herself or not, it seems clear to me that these line represent a turning point in the poem away from the concrete to abstraction. The “Juggler’s figure” is a pattern of flight, a tracing in the air. In a double sense these have no base: they do not come to rest, but are continually circulated back into the air and the abstract pattern of their flight touches nothing but imagination. If Guthrie is correct that the Juggler is also Poet, the Figures being “figures of speech,” describe her own “manipulation of metaphor by a ‘juggler’ or poet who seems to make concrete objects rest upon a “baseless Arc” of nothingness. Poetry, and not the poet, performs and then disappears.” (Ibid.)

      I will add my own thought: In the final stanza Emily focuses on something even more abstract – contradiction, until in the final lines she masterfully brings the storm, the poem, the experience to nothing but thought and memory, that like her hidden packet, hides itself in denials of existence.

      Great choice for conversation, Susan!

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      To Steve: T’is a beauty, isn’t it? I’m always amused to watch a grand movie set in Russian winter, one piece of me swept off by the beauty, the other thinking, you’d last outdoors in that cold about five minutes. So instead, I sit indoors by the fire, listen to the incredibly atmospheric music and pretend!

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        To Lowell: This is fascinating, including your closing insightful take (and oh so very meta, I might add). Makes at least what I’ve quoted here of Vendler’s take on the differences between the versions seem too pedestrian by half. I must lay both versions in front of me again soon, along with Vendler’s full reading of the poem, and compare it all with what you’ve quoted and stated here, after which I’ll come over to and weigh in with any further thoughts.

  8. shoreacres

    When Steve posted a sunflower recently at “Portraits of Wildflowers”, I very briefly confused the background sky for water. Your photo at the top affected me in the same way. Perhaps because of my recent immersion into Mr. Simpson’s life and times, I saw the snow as sand. Drifts are drifts, after all, and I’ve seen Texas beaches where the sand and grasses interact in precisely this way.

    Great heaps of snow, with their purity and seeming ability to present a clean slate, are lovely. Striking. Impressive. But the combination of flowing water, snow, the residue of a season’s growth? It’s more like the complexity of life itself, and filled with implicit promise.

    I was stopped in my tracks by this quotation: “When Dickinson decides to cut, it usually means that on rereading she notices that her imagination has digressed, in its love of play, from its basic aim.” I laughed in recognition when I read that. It points to a truth that rarely gets its due: writing can be fun. More than a few times I’ve headed out to shovel a path through some words, but ended up tossing the shovel aside in favor of making a metaphor-angel or tossing a few simile-balls!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Shoreacres: Interesting to think of the similarity between sand and snow. Reminds me of going to the Indiana and Michigan dunes when I lived in Chicago. The sand and snow do indeed interact with the grasses in the same way. Of course I thoroughly enjoyed your reaction to the Vendler quote. Have fun with your metaphor-angels and simile-balls!

  9. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for this elaborate post! I only knew one version – and though I like the picture of “It makes an even Face
    Of Mountain, and of Plain –
    Unbroken Forehead from the East
    Unto the East again -”
    the cutting has done it good. (Though still marvelling about ‘Alabaster Wool’ – strong contrasts in it, and to my taste a bit artificial) .
    For a line like “Then curls itself in Capricorn – Denying that it was” I can melt like snow!
    Your photographs are so beautiful – and I admire also your technical ability to put them into a dia-show. Thank you!

  10. Elizabeth


    You referred me to an earlier blog in reply to a question I posted above. I misdirected my own question by the use of qualifiers. This one may bring me closer to better understanding: I would be interested to hear which painting or other work of visual art expresses for you the same mood or emotion as Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major.

    As an aside, the remark that in his lifetime Schubert was considered “a second-rate, but gifted and promising, composer” reminded me of a slur made about the “minor regional writers” of Charlottesville – in delightful response to which the Charlottesvillians had t-shirts made for themselves which read “minor regional writer.” Too bad Schubert lived before the era of t-shirts!


  11. newleaf2013


    Of course, your choice is most appropriate: whatever muse inspired Schubert to compose may, as well, have inspired the painter who could convey the mood his music evoked.

    What first occurred to me was Henri Rousseau’s painting of the lion devouring the antelope. Plantlife communicates such tranquility, and Schubert, too, creates a transportative tranquility. He also breaks his calm with a force as sudden as the lion’s attack. When contemplating Rousseau’s painting, I am always rescued from the drama by the knowledge that quiet will be restored, again and again, by the large and abiding jungle plants. If you look at the Rousseau, you can hear in Schubert the calling and chatter which the struggle must have provoked, quickly finished, and settling back down into green peace.

    Just a thought – Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      “Just a thought” yours may be, but such a gorgeous thought, and I’m so pleased you shared it here–and pleased, to, that serendipity led you to the Schubert Quintet. What you write about Rousseau puts in mind these lines from John Ashbery’s great poem “And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name”:

      The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
      Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
      Something between breaths, if only for the sake
      Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
      For other centers of communication, so that understanding
      May begin, and in doing so be undone.

  12. newleaf2013


    I tuned in to NPR just in time to hear the announcer say, “And now more, celebrating the birthday of Franz Schubert!” – and I knew that I must thank you again for introducing me to his String Quintet in C Major. That was a good day for me, and I thank you for it. And today, a Happy Birthday to us all!


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