Gift giving
Gift giving

The New Year brings with it a rich literary tradition, since for centuries it was customary for poets to use their art at this pivotal moment, marking the occasion, weighing elegy and hope, making in words something that could be carried across the threshold from past to future.

‘Then as ye sit about your embers’, Robert Herrick advised his old friend and patron Simeon Steward at New Year 1623,

‘Call not to mind those fled Decembers;
But think on these, that are t’ appear,
As daughters to the instant year.’

The fled Decembers are called to mind, of course, even as Herrick dispatches them. Fires, plots, the sickness of the kingdom, and the joy of Christmas festivities too: grim politics and domestic pleasures are gathered in memory before Herrick makes the season’s Janus turn towards anticipation. At the join between two couplets, the poem turns its head.

Title of the lecture recording - Around the Year's Midnight. Professor Alexandra Harris. 24 January 2023. Inaugural lecture. University of Birmingham
Inaugural lecture recording

To sit about one’s embers: even for those of us who sit by radiators instead, it is a vivid image of a winter still-point. We have rushed and fed and sung, and now we sit, perhaps alone, watching the place where the brightness was. Herrick’s embers recall an earlier couplet in his poem, telling ‘Of crackling Laurel, which fore-sounds, / A plenteous harvest to your grounds’. We can almost see and hear the lively laurel. The ashes from the fire will be spread on the earth to fertilise it; next year’s ‘plenteous harvest’ will rise from the old year’s wood. It’s all there in twelve words, the growing and dying and growing again. Herrick has little need of mythology when practical domestic economy gives him all the phoenixes he needs. No harm, though, if the laurel makes a gesture to rites in ancient Rome, where branches from the sacred laurel tree were given as the original strenae, or New Year gifts.

New Year was the time for gift-giving in the Roman calendar described by Ovid: usually small gifts like cloves, saffron or honey.

Professor Alexandra Harris

Presents were given at New Year in early modern England, too, a custom that continued until 25 December became the firm focus for Victorian celebrations. New Year poems were often composed as gifts, especially to patrons: addressed to one person in particular, even when widely shared. Some writers, understanding the season as one of purgings and resolutions, portrayed the ideal beings their recipients might become. John Donne invoked God as tutor in his searing poem to Lucy, Countess of Bedford (‘He will best teach you how you should lay out / Your stock of beauty, learning, favour, blood’) though it was the poet who was directing their intimate course towards the ‘private gospel’ of salvation, a New Year marriage of time and eternity.

William Cowper, one of the great eighteenth-century writers of nature, revised the gift-giving tradition by describing a surprise he had received. He addressed his poem to the giver: ‘To the Nightingale, which the author heard sing on New-Year’s Day 1792’. He questioned the meaning of a sound heard out of season:

Whence is it that amazed I hear
From yonder wither’d spray
The foremost morn of all the year
The melody of May?

Was it a portent of ‘happier days at hand’? Cowper received the augury and let it lift him. He could take into the year the knowledge, at least, of a bird that has the power to make ‘ev’ry season spring’. Cowper was writing about an unseasonal anomaly but, as he well knew, the appearance of spring in midwinter was the vital essence of a Christian’s New Year. He could not feel himself blessed; he was cast out, he believed, from hearing God’s voice. Cowper stood at a painful distance from the joy of the Nativity as it had been expressed by New Year poets before him, like Richard Crashaw welcoming ‘Summer in Winter! Day in Night!’ At a sidelong angle to the season’s cheer, casting himself as a wanderer out alone, he carefully saved up the hope of the nightingale’s song.

Charles Lamb gave readers of the London Magazine the gift of an old poem for New Year 1821. His essay ‘New Year’s Eve’ mourned the loss of the departing year. He could not pivot on a couplet, like Herrick, to greet the coming time. It was the past he loved, on ‘this green earth’: the familiar hours of his own past days. Old friends, fled Decembers. ‘I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties’. And he could see little pleasure in travelling on into another year, which must bring him closer to the end. ‘I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity’.

Lamb rallied himself and his reader by writing out the whole of a New Year poem by the seventeenth-century poet and fisherman Charles Cotton. It was a gift-poem from another age, and it gave Lamb strength and company in the present. Cotton’s verses ‘washed away’ morbid fear in a convivial January purge. ‘Do they not fortify like a cordial?’ Lamb asked, passing them on to his readers, and raising a toast: to the New Year and the art we take with us.