Thursday, 7 January 2010


When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
To-who! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all about the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion's nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl
Then nightly sings the staring owl
To-who! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Yes, they had it rough in Winter back in the sixteenth/seventeenth century. I don't much fancy whatever it is Greasy Joan is keeling in the pot. In fact the only cheery thing, apart from that staring owl, is the thought of crabs hissing in the bowl - and that sounds a bit gruesome.
I love this poem and learnt it off by heart when I was very young. Just as I recite Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad to myself every Spring, so this Winter poem sticks in my mind and keeps cropping up. The icicles in the photograph are on my climbing rose just outside the front door - New Dawn she is called and that is quite appropriate as I took this picture just as dawn was breaking and got my slippers and the bottom of my trousers covered in deep snow in order to take it! (Yes, I know, I shouldn't have gone out in my slippers, but it was only two steps).
When I think about it Shakespeare had a poem or a line or two to fit more or less every season and occasion didn't he?
Maybe we are spoiled these days (the farmer thinks thus) as we view the snow from our centrally heated rooms and order our groceries on line to save us a journey (well we do in this part of the world but I can't help thinking of people in remote Himalayan villages, who suffer much worse cold than this for most of the year without our mod.cons). But I do enjoy looking back.
Who remembers school milk? (In the days before Mrs Thatcher, the milk-snatcher as she was called by some). It used to be delivered to the infant classroom door in a crate when I was in Infant school. The milk monitor would drag it in at playtime and we would sit round the open fire with its nursery fireguard and drink our milk. The milk bottle top was a disc of waxed cardboard with a little circle in the middle which you pushed in so that you could get your straw into the milk. And - joy of joys - sometimes the milk would be frozen! A big lump of milky ice would be rattling about in the bottle and, if you were lucky, you could dip your straw into the thick layer of cream on the top and enjoy an iced cream. Oh, those were the days - brings tears to my eyes to think about it - but don't let anyone call them the good old days from the comfort of their reclining arm chair and their television set!
Talking of the sixteenth century I am still ploughing through Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" - a Christmas present. I am not finding it an easy read but it is such a sterling work that I am making myself read it. And I can't help thinking about the part where Thomas Cromwell, who has already lost his wife to the plague, sits by the beds of his two young daughters as they too die of it. Certainly makes that coughing drowning out the parson's saw in the poem above more meaningful - it seems if you coughed people immediately thought you might have plague. Good old days, my foot.
PS. Hands up those who used to make pom-poms by threading wool through the milk bottle discs? Oh, and while I am on about such things, what about making little wool mats by tapping four tacks into the top of a used cotton reel and doing French knitting through the reel and then coiling it round? We had simple pleasures in those days, didn't we?


jinksy said...

French knitting, pom-poms and school milk were all part of my childhood, too, plus a big treat one time, when the headmistress had got some powdered chocolate for us to add to the morning milk! Goodness knows how she got hold of it, but we thought its slightly cardboardy flavour was magic, while it lasted. Your icicles are lovely to look at...

Amanda Sheridan said...

Some 40 odd years on (far too many years than I care to remember!) I was oddly pleased to read the first line of the poem and be able to recite the rest. Isn't it gummy the things that stay in your mind when you can't even recall what you ate for dinner yesterday!

Amanda Sheridan said...

Oops! That should of course read 'funny' not 'gummy' - or maybe a Freudian slip given the ever advancing years ....

Robin Mac said...

My memories of school milk in Australia are not nearly so pleasant - far too warm after sitting in the summer sun for a couple of hours - perhaps that is why I hat drinking mild now. French knitting was a lot of fun though and very much a part of my childhood. I like the poem you have started your blog with, but I agree I would hat to go back to the "good old days"

Arija said...

Funny how certain thins stick in your mind. Not ven being English i too learned Home Thoughts fron Abroad and still love it, also The Ancient Mariner, Shelley's Ode to the Skylark, the Silent Watchers...poems that stirred the heart. These days there are no wooden cotton reels... I do miss the good old days. We grow most of our own food, I can easily do without TV and love making my own clothes even if it is on the 1927 hsnk crsnked Singer. I am so behind the times that I hate supermarkets and shopping is definitely no therapy for me and before you think my memory is at fault, I did the family wash in a copper and washboard and rinsed it in the outdoor laundry in icy water every Saturday morning.
We had chillblains and red swollen knees between our tunics and long socks but there was somehow a lot more love to go around.

Helsie said...

We had milk at our morning tea break too here in OZ. The only problem was that here it is HOT and the milk would be left outside ( sometimes in the sun !) from morning when it was delivered 'til break time - about 2hours - so it was often warm and very unpleasant though not actually gone bad. YUK!

And we were forced to drink it "for our own good" Not such good old days !!

steven said...

weaver i recall bottled milk being delivered to my school on church street in altrincham. it had foil lids and the birds would peck at the lids. the cream on top was dreamy and the paper straws - well you soon learned not to get them soggy because if matron caught you "playing" with the straw to try to get it to work again . . . . . . i loved the poem and laughed when i read your comments on it!! thankyou. have a lovely day in the dale and change your slippers when you go outside!! steven


Oh Yes! sweet memories of shcool milk,a cering relaxed atmosphere in te classroom, and always time for a story sat on the mat around the teachers chair. It instilled in me a love of stories and reading, we had no TV at home - a far more creative childhood, I think than todays fast track, hurly burly childhood.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post... not found of the milk memories from my school days. I don't go back quite as far, for our milk was delivered in cartons..and alot of the time it was warm and sour. I did without. In my elementary days we had thermos that were glass inside..and we had to be careful before we took a drink that the glass had not shattered.

Beautiful poem.. and makes me glad that I was born in this century


Golden West said...

We had milk with graham crackers on the side - my favorite part of the school day! And we, too, worked yarn on four pegged wooden spools - I still use the hot pads that my daughter made as a child. Sweet memories, Weaver.

rallentanda said...

I love that of my favourites.'Coughing drowns the parson's saw' reminds me of the monotone in the school chapel where
I spent most of my years either daydreaming or dozing off.I have just submitted a poem on my blog
called'Churchill Daffodils and Lipstick',a reference I pinched from one of your posts.It's a very unusual take on the subject matter
and I shouldn't imagine that it would be your sort of poetry but I thought I should mention it anyway!

MarmaladeRose said...

Simple pleasures...Some of us still enjoy those simple pleasures. Can't beat em!

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I loved ice cold milk in school; far nicer than the warm creamy stuff of summer! We had foil tops. But I did make pompoms, just using cutout cardboard circles and wool odds and ends left over from balaclavas and the like!

Heather said...

Love that poem Weaver, and I remember pom-poms and french knitting - great fun. School milk was lovely except in hot summer weather when ours was often sour by 11.00am - yuk! Those icicles are beautiful - hope New Dawn wont suffer because of them. I nipped out in my Crocs yesterday without thinking and of course got soaked feet. I'm still coughing - do you think it's the plague?! It's interesting to look back in time, but I'm glad I'm here now.

Jane Moxey said...

What memories you have activated! I remember being really afraid of those little milk bottles with their special tops. I had never had fresh cow's milk, only evaporated, when I went to school near Manchester just after the war. So when the bottle with a straw was delivered to me at my little desk (which had a real inkwell), I remember having a bad case of the shivers. But once I tasted the milk, I loved it and looked forward to my turn of being the kid who stuck the straws in the bottles. And learning poems and psalms by heart was, at the time, a chore, but those words fly back unbidden from time to time. And yes! about the French knitting and making pompoms with the milk tops!

Hildred and Charles said...

I remember, I remember, - in fact I was just thinking this morning when we were discussing waxed milk cartons versus plastic of the lovely bottled milk that was delivered to our doorstep via milkman and hearty horses with steam rising from their nostrils. The cream, of course, rose to the top and then in the winter it froze and rose even further, - wonderful iced cream pushing the cardboard top up an inch or so.

And spool knitting too, - the children still do it if you catch them in a quiet moment.

It is a lovely still morning here, - nippy outside but cosy in the house, and the comparison to Shakespeare's description of winter should surely raise feelings of thankfulness.

Reader Wil said...

Very nice reading, Weaver! Yes the works of Shakespeare and other of his contemporaries are difficult to read. I remember that my children had schoolmilk too. I myself have never had schoolmilk. The first two years of the elementary school were in Indonesia, then came the war without schooling. When war was over I was 12 years old and had one year at the elementary school then I had to go to the secundary school. I still had to learn a lot of Dutch grammar, history and arithmatic. All turned out well fortunately.

Gramma Ann said...

I remember all too well. I loved to get the cream and add chocolate syrup to it. When you are young anything tastes good, and no worrying about how much fat we were getting from all that cream.

I think we are having the same weather here in U.S. as you are having in U.K.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

marvellous post dear Weaver, I decided at once this evening to visit your blog first after here that in England, in the South in particular, temperatures of minus eighteen degrees have been's what was touched on the Dolomites where I have just spent the New Years' holidays!

Sara said...

I can remember school milk, but not so fondly. I remember having to drink it unrefrigerated in the Summer months. Warm milk creamy milk - Yuk! I used to love making pom-poms but when I wanted to make one more recently to hang as a fake momma hen for my chicks you know I couldn't for the life of me remember how to do it! How silly! After telling a friend of mine about my Polo dog's arthritic back legs, her daughter has decided to make her leg warmers using her French knitting dolly - what a sweet thought! Hope you stay snuggly & safe in the icy weather.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Oh, I finished reading "Wolf Hall" in early December after almost one month and a half. I agree with you, it was hard to read, especially because of the simultaneity or very fast succession of events and reflections and the grid of characters...

Elisabeth said...

There seems to be a split among your commenters, Weaver, those who loved their milk and those others like me, especially those from Australia, who remember only the warm, off milk of summertime.

A fascinating post

mrsnesbitt said...

How's the weather?
Had enough myself but apparantly another week of the stuff!

The Weaver of Grass said...

After all these fantastic comments I really feel we ought to have a pom-pom competition - it seems we all made them. And as for French knitting - it seems it is still on the go but one has to buy the kit as those lovely wooden reels are no longer made. It just reminds me that my brother used to do something clever with elastic bands and cotton reels to make tanks which travelled across the table - anybody remember them?
As far as school milk is concerned there is a great divide between here and Australia where the milk usually went sour - do you know I never thought of that.
Thank you for all your comments - as usual they are a really good read.

Studio Sylvia said...

As with the other Australians, school milk put me off milk. The crates used to be delivered early and would sit outside, until the Grade 8 boys would bring them in and take the crates to each classroom. During summer, the milk would be warm, just starting to turn. I can remember that one day, in Grade 3, I had drunk about two thirds of a bottle when I discovered a fly in the milk - I struggled from then on to drink the school milk and I have not drunk a glass of milk since. Our bottles had foil lids. I used to do French knitting and mum would coil it up, sew it and make floor rugs. Pom Poms - doughnut shaped cardboard was the go.

Poet in Residence said...

Thanks Weaver for featuring one of my favourite winter poems from the man himself.

We have overwintering crows here from Siberia. The locals get quite nervous when they see clouds of them wheeling nearby. It's only -1°C today but the bitter cold is in the wind...after rain now frozen on top of melted snow it's too icy, too slippery even to go running.

BT said...

A marvellous post, Weaver, and we're now all reminiscing about school milk (lovely), pom poms and French Knitting. I still have some old wooden cotton reels if you want one - from my mother's many reels. I also have some French knitting in my sewing box! It's such fun.

Super poem, but not a life I'd want to lead. The book sounds like my cup of tea.