It was that kind of day, one of those December days when you wouldn't want to go out without an umbrella. Wet and rainy, with a steady drizzle all day long -- what happens when warm Gulf air pushing into the Midwest mixes with the leading edge of the giant winter storm that buried Denver. They've got enough white for many Christmases, here in Madison we've got zilch.
What was cool was that a melting Lake Wingra (so recently crisscrossed by iceboats flying across the ice) provided a nice supply of construction materials for our traditional Solstice ice lantern. Miniature ice floes floated obligingly close to the shore, and we scooped them up. T leaned them against each other to build an ice shrine with the sure instincts of a natural ice sculptor and lit the candles.
Since the sunset was not visible, we had to time it with our watches. 4:25 CST marked the start of the longest night of the year, after which the days grow longer again -- or is it the darkest night?
Not an insignificant point. They were talking about Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening [links to Library of Congress handwritten manuscript] on the radio as I drove home through the gloomy rain past dark, snowless wooded hills. According to the consensus on Jean Feraca's "Here on Earth" (archives) the last line in this famous quatrain made "Stopping by Woods" a Solstice poem.
My little horse must think it queerI had never thought of it that way. I think of Solstice poems as poems of rebirth and celebration, but Frost's poem is about other things, some of them very dark. It seemed to me that if Frost had meant "longest evening," he would have said that, and that he chose the words "darkest evening" for their symbolic resonance more than their euphony. And in a sampling of critical opinion, there are few mentions of the Solstice, none of them central to the interpretation. But I looked that up later.
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
As we stood watching the icebound candles flicker in the soggy darkness, I was still wondering if I was the only person on earth who had never thought of the Solstice in connection with this poem. (I so often miss the obvious.) So I asked T if she ever thought of it as a Solstice poem.
"No, why?" she asked.
I told her about the discussion on the radio. "You know, stopping on the darkest evening of the year."
"That's symbolic. He wrote darkest, not longest. That can stand for many things."
As we headed home I thought about the irony that, by bringing up the poem on the Solstice, I had in a way made it a Solstice poem, or at any rate, part of our Solstice. But ours had something Frost's poem lacked. As we approached our house, all the way across the dark expanse of the park we could still see the glow of our candles in their little ice cave along the lake. They could probably see them flickering from the other side.