Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

 Overview

This poem is another song taken from a Shakespeare play; this time it’s As You Like It. Pathetic fallacy is used throughout to compare the harsh and bitter winter weather with a friendship turned sour and forgotten with friendship seemingly the more painful and difficult to endure.

           Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
          Thou art not so unkind
                    As a man’s ingratitude;
          Thy tooth is not so keen,
          Because thou art not seen,
                    Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly;
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
          Then heigh-ho, the holly,
          This life is most jolly!

          Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
          That dost not bite so nigh
                    As benefits forgot:
          Though thou the waters warp,
          Thy sting is not so sharp
                    As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly;
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
          Then heigh-ho, the holly,
          This life is most jolly!

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

So, this is another poem taken from a play and it may help your understanding to have a brief synopsis of As You Like It.

Duke Frederick has pushed his older brother, Duke Senior, aside to take charge of their home land; however, both their daughters (Celia – daughter of Frederick; Rosalind – daughter of Senior) continue to live at court with Frederick as they are close friends. The girls quickly manage to get themselves banished and head to the woods to be with Duke Senior. Orlando, a noble from the court, has fallen in love with Rosalind, but is forced to flee by his brother’s, Oliver’s, taunting.

Clearly (this is Shakespeare after all) the girls end up cross dressing and examining first Orlando and then Oliver who eventually become their suitors. Eventually they all get married and live happily after and even the nasty usurper, Frederick, has a change of heart and restores Duke Senior to his rightful place.

One of the key themes of the play is injustice done to individuals by their family – Duke Senior is betrayed by his younger brother and Orlando is bullied by his older brother. In the play it all ends well, but the song/poem reflects this theme of the harm and misery those closest to us can inflict.

  

Themes

As above, this is about the power of human relationships and the bitterness of betrayal. We’ve also obviously got the theme of nature being used to convey a message about human emotions and the impact of sour relations/friendship.

Content

The poem addresses the wind, personifying it in order to make the comparison between it and humans completely clear.

Now if you’ve ever lived in a country with proper winters (i.e. not Uganda) you’ll know that the wind can be extremely bitter and bitingly cold, but this poem immediately claims that this is nothing next to the attitude of men. ‘Ingratitude’ suggests that the speaker has been treated unfairly by someone who should owe him thanks, if you link this to the context there are obvious comparisons within the play. The ‘tooth’ not being as ‘keen’ means that it is not as sharp, so it doesn’t inflict as much pain as that caused by betrayal from a friend. However, the reason the wind is not seen as hurtful or cruel is because it is ‘not seen’, which suggests that the speaker feels that whoever has betrayed or let him down is still present in his life and is lauding his actions over our speaker.

The second half of the stanza is meant to show that the speaker is not bitter about what has happened as he is basically saying ‘Oh well, let’s get on with it and not linger on our anger’. ‘Heigh-ho’ might be something the seven dwarves would say, but here it means ‘Oh well’ and a reference to the fact he is having to overcome a challenge or problem, but is facing it positively – it can mean boredom or fatigue, which would mean he is tired of dwelling on what has happened. The fact it is repeated three time in the chorus could mean that the speaker is trying to convince himself to be optimistic and to get on with things, but is finding it hard to just move on without resentment.

However, you have to question whether that is the case based on the opening of the stanza. He also dismisses friendship as ‘feigning’ (lie) and love as ‘folly’ (stupidity), which suggests that he feels let down by those closest to him and recognises that his previous emotions or feelings towards whoever is the focus of this poem have evaporated. The reference to ‘green holly’ links us directly to Duke Senior’s plight as he has to retreat to the woods to hold his court.

The second stanza follows the same pattern as the first; we move from the winter wind to its frost and ice, which again is bitingly cold and something to avoid with the aid of a snug jacket at all times. However, it is nothing in comparison to a ‘friend remembered not’ by someone who has forgotten all you’ve done for him (‘benefits forgot’). Then we return to the chorus once more, flying in the face of what’s been said in the first half of the stanza.

Language and techniques

Okay, so I’ve briefly alluded to pathetic fallacy in the overview, but let’s explore that in a bit more detail. Human relationships are being referred to here in comparison with the natural harshness and bitterness of the winter. The freezing cold, the bite of the wind and nip of the ice and frost are amongst nature’s most deadly or uncomfortable conditions. Winter is often used as a link to ideas of death or lack of emotions, which is appropriate for the focus of this poem.

This poem takes for granted that we understand the vicious nature of this season and uses these most terrible conditions to provide a suitable comparison for the pain he feels has been inflicted upon him by a close friend. We know the weather is ‘unkind’, has ‘bite’ and there is a ‘sharp’ ‘sting’ to winter conditions, but in the poem these are only mentioned comparatively with the winter coming out kinder than man.

I also mentioned personification earlier; this poem addresses the conditions with ‘thou’ and it is almost as if the speaker is seeking comfort in this conversation as he is able to express his dissatisfaction. In the first stanza there is a focus on the mouth of the wind as it talks about its ‘tooth is not so keen’ and ‘breath be rude’. This is a familiar piece of personification as people often talk about the biting cold, but the focus could indicate that the person who has betrayed him has done so with his words.

Another thing I might mention is the multi-sensory imagery in the poem: we see the sharp teeth of the offender, but also smell his ‘rude’ breath; we also feel the ‘bite’ and the sharp ‘sting’ that our speaker has felt through being let down by his friend. This is significant because it shows us that the pain inflicted by the inconstance of love is all encompassing.

Finally, let’s deal with the chorus. You can read the chorus in two ways: one, as an optimistic approach to hardship where our speaker is moving on from it; or alternatively it is bitterly satirical and sarcastic and actually he has not intention of being ‘jolly’. Both interpretations make sense as in the play Duke Senior actually seems to make the most of being usurped and doesn’t linger in misery or bitterness, but in the poem/song we have a complete contrast in what is being said in the verse and the chorus – at first bitter and resentful and then completely fine with whatever has happened.

The positivity of the language, the punctuation and the expression ‘heigh-ho’ contrasts dramatically with the implication of the words ‘feigning’ and ‘folly’ to describe friendship and love. These words suggests he feels like he has been an idiot or a fool to trust whoever this poem is address to. These words again suggest a bitterness to me that is at odds with the way the chorus is structured. The last line could be seen as being oxymoronic in relation to what we have learnt in the rest of the poem: how on earth can life be ‘most jolly’ when you feel let down by those closest to you?

Structure

I’m not sure I’ve got lots to talk about here, but let’s see.

One thing you could discuss is the difference in pace and organisation between the verses and the chorus. Notice the lines change length dramatically at the beginning of the chorus and we move from a standard 6 syllables a line to 10-11. Initially we have short bitter statements about how he feels mistreated, but the chorus becomes more sing-songy as he tries to look on the bright side.

Another difference is the use of alliteration. In stanza one we have the repetition of the stressed ‘b’, ‘w’ and even harsh ‘t’ sounds that make us almost spit out the words, mirroring the poetic voice’s anger/bitterness. Compare this to the chorus which is also alliterative, but with much gentler ‘h’, ‘s’, ‘f’ and ‘l’ sounds. When we read the chorus it feels like a ‘jolly’ song, whereas when we read the verse it feels like we are cursing. Additionally, this jolliness is assisted by the repetitive rhyme and simplicity of rhyming words in the chorus as opposed to AABCCB in the verse. You could also point out the enthusiasm with which the verse is delivered as it is punctuated with an exclamation mark.

The difference continues in the second stanza, but this time the verse uses the ‘b’, ‘w’ and harsh ‘s’ sounds in the words ‘sting’ and ‘sharp’ for the same reasons.

Tone

To a certain extent I’m going to have to leave this to you. It depends how you interpret it: is he bitter and then deeply sarcastic or is this someone who is carrying resentment, but trying to look at things positively?

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

11 thoughts on “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”

  1. Mr Sir you’ve helped me a bunch. ♥ Tomorrow’s AS my exam and I can’t be ever more grateful to have found your website over a year ago.

  2. Too many comments complaining this was insufficient! It was actually tremendously helpful in understanding the poem! Thanks for your assistance.

    1. I want a Ferrari in each primary colour 🙁

      Sorry, I’ve done my best! Simply not enough hours in the day for that project.

  3. In the last paragraph of ‘structure’ you said ‘but this time the verse uses the ‘b’, ‘w’ ………’. Did you mean ‘b’ and ‘f’ since I couldn’t find any ‘w’ sounds in the second stanza?

  4. So in the language part can we talk about hyperbolic exaggeration like too harsh and bitter natural conditions used to describe the extreme pain…everything moving to the extreme other than those chorus parts which try to balance out the situation.

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