I remember being a choirgirl in the early 90s learning melancholy songs about winter and snow and slumber. 60+ kids from 9 to 18 years old would meet in a college classroom on Saturday mornings, but when we got closer to our concert dates, we’d meet in a rather non-descript chapel on a college campus in our small town, plain because it was meant to be non-denominational. Thirty years later, when I think about those days, for some reason my mind always goes to the chapel rather than the classroom. That seems to be where my memory wants to live.
There were several winter songs that I learned in my nine years as part of that youth chorus, and one of the first I recall learning was John Rutter’s Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind. The lyrics are Shakespeare, from one of his lesser known plays called As You Like It (though this is the play that the famous “all the world’s a stage” quote comes from).
This was always meant to be a song – in the play, a character named Amiens sings it in Act II, Scene 7. So this is something that’s been sung since the early 1600s; it’s an old thing but still relatable today, as one thing I’ve learned from studying history is that human nature never really changes. Languages change – customs change – fashions change – but we don’t.
This song is sung by Amiens because he feels forgotten by a friend. If you think friend breaks ups are a new concept – they’re not. Amiens feels forgotten. He compares the winter weather to the pain of being estranged from a friend.
“This life is most jolly” is sarcasm in this context. But I didn’t understand that when I first learned it. The words wouldn’t start to resonate until much later in life.
The sentiment behind the song is pretty simple – the winter wind is not as bad as people’s ungratefulness. The wind is not as biting because it’s invisible, even if it’s “breath be rude” because other people are not invisible. They’re tangible, while the wind is not. Friendship is performative, loving is foolish. The bitter freeze is not as bad as being forgotten; the wind is not as stinging as a friend forgotten.
“This life is most jolly” – that’s 17th century sarcasm.
In the early 90s, I didn’t catch any of that meaning. I just knew that the music captivated me – the tune that Rutter composed is quite gorgeous – bleak and sad like the lyrics. You can listen to it here:
The singers are in unison for the first half of the song, but in the second half, the parts split off, some of the singers creating a wind-like vocal effect.
In the 1800s, John Everett Millais put his own spin on this, naming a painting after the song:
Here you can see a woman with a baby sitting on the side of a snowy road with a small satchel of some sort beside here, while in the distance, a man walks away alone, his arm held up to his face as if wiping away tears.
It’s bleak, and definitely stings – you can feel the cold, see the way the woman’s clothes are blowing in the wind and know what the cold wind feels like, hear the howls from the dog in the middle ground that maybe match the howling of the incoming storm, and feel the dread of the encroaching gray cloud. But I think the Millais interpretation is a slight detour – the original lyrics and context are definitely about a friend.
Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.
One thing I’ve seen happening recently, in cultural consciousness, is the awareness that friend break ups can be just as bad, if not worse, than romantic break ups. I think that’s a thing that’s always been understood within the queer community, as us queers tend to subvert binaries when it comes to how relationships work. But in the hetero allosexual world, the friendship/romance binary is a strong one, and many can’t see beyond that, let alone see how uneven it is.
So much is invested into the romantic side, and unfairly in my estimation. In a monogamous relationship, your significant other is sexual partner, life partner, co-parent, ally, friend, support system. And while I do believe that emotional affairs are real things that can and do happen, I’ve reflected lately on how unfair it is to expect one person to be your everything, including your emotional center. We need different relationships – a variety – and the non-romantic ones are no less important. In fact, I think they may be moreso.
That’s what I’ve come to appreciate about Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, cynical and sad as it is – it centers the sting and bitterness of losing a friend, or discovering that someone was not what they seemed. So my mind goes back to it, as I dealt with that myself – and irony of ironies, the person in question used to sing this song with me, back in the 90s, when we were kids learning to translate emotions that none of us yet understood. We weren’t even friends yet then – that came later on, when the song was an ingrained part of our choral repertoire and, in my case, my emotional repertoire.
Thy tooth is not so keen because thou art not seen.
This concept is now at the center of the most recent story I’m working on. It started as a personal processing of sorts, but with recent conversations about the idea of platonic marriages, of how younger people say “I love you” to friends and show levels of affection that those of us who are bit older don’t, of how more and more people are beginning to wake up to the idea that the friendship/romance binary is limiting and lopsided, it ignited a need in me to explore something outside of that binary.
With plenty of drama, of course – it’s in the dark academia genre, which overlaps with Gothic literature themes and tenets. (And what fits dark academia better than dark Shakespeare?)
The romances in the story I’m working on are incidental – really not much more than distractions. In some cases, the romances are practice for the friendship, not vice versa.
The central friendship, toxic and and destructive as it is, is centered, and the story is about what happens when it goes off the rails, told by the person who felt betrayed. A secondary friendship arises in a frame story, through which the narrator finally feels seen, but this time, she is the one betrayed. And what is unseen – and there’s a lot in this story that’s unseen – is never as threatening or as painful for these characters as what they can see.
There are other influences as well, including a recent court case that I became extremely fixated on where a teenage girl encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide. They were “dating” but it was long-distance, and they spent more time apart than together, thus it was really more of an intense, fixated friendship by my estimation, which is one of the many reasons it fascinates me.
She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the hype around the case resulted in a documentary and a plethora of other media that I greedily consumed, as I’m fascinated by what her thought process and motives were. I don’t believe it was a simple as what was presented in court, because these things never are. (To be clear: I think she did deserve the involuntary manslaughter conviction. I just don’t think the “she did it for attention” conclusion is way too reductive, given what is revealed about the relationship dynamics by the many text messages that came to light during the trial.)
And all of these things have been congealing in my brain. My own loss and bewilderment over that loss, how being queer changed how I understand relationships, how the rest of the world is starting to remember what people in the past clearly knew, this case where I think the central core emotion was not one of need, but of betrayal.
And it’s winter and windy and the light is filtered through clouds. It’s going to snow later.
Though thou the waters warp, thy sting is not so sharp as friend remembered not.