What is the meaning of John Berryman's poem Winter Landscape?

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The idea of meaning in poetry can be a somewhat subjective one. Different schools of thought interpret meaning differently: much literary criticism does not take into account what the writer intended something to mean, but rather what it means to the reader. Berryman's "Winter Landscape" is itself a reflection on...

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The idea of meaning in poetry can be a somewhat subjective one. Different schools of thought interpret meaning differently: much literary criticism does not take into account what the writer intended something to mean, but rather what it means to the reader. Berryman's "Winter Landscape" is itself a reflection on another piece of work, Brueghel's painting "Hunters in the Snow," and elaborates on the meaning he himself found there.

Essentially, he describes the image in the picture—"three men coming down the winter hill," with the ice rink behind them "lively with children"—and reflects that, as they are only figures in a painting, "they can never reach" the "companions" in the distance. The image in the picture is fixed, crystallized in time in the year it was painted, 1565.

Yet, to Berryman, the picture has a different meaning than the one it may have had to the painter. Looking at the picture with the benefit of hindsight, Berryman imagines "the evil waste of history" which took place after this picture was painted, and which the people in the picture can never witness. Berryman looks at the various elements in the picture and infers that at painted moment in time, the men in the picture consider "what morning occasion / Sent them into the wood" to then return, freezing in the postures in which we now see them. The poem is an analysis of the many elements available to us in art, and the many ways in which we can imagine, but never know, the full depth of what is presented there.

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John Berryman, famous for his many sonnets and particularly Dream Songs, wrote Winter Landscape in response to a landscape picture by Pieter Brueghel (Bruegel), Hunters in the Snow. He has attempted to capture the moment as it is reflected on the picture and has used only one (long) sentence in his description. John Berryman was a conflicted man who never recovered from his father's suicide and who attempted suicide himself as a schoolboy and successfully killed himself years later, leaving his third wife and young children. 

Capturing a moment in time in this poem allows for interpretation, especially if the painting by Brueghel is not viewed simultaneously. The reader gets the image of the men, overlooking their town, "returning cold and silent." This would suggest that, whatever they had been doing, was not particularly successful. It is "twilight" so they have, seemingly, been out all day and are returning tired. 

Then there are the "five figures at the burning straw" who do not seem to belong in the town or are perhaps not welcome there. There is a contrast between these men, set apart and not part of the fun as the children play on the frozen lake or rink, and the obvious "lively" events taking place in the town.

The historical element of Berryman's poem should not be overlooked as "the evil waste of history" not evident in the actual painting, is referenced in Berryman's interpretation, the painting having been completed during Catholic and Protestant reformation in Holland.

There is a consistency that Berryman describes as the hunters will " keep the scene" although the reader should not be concerned with what "Sent them into the wood" but should know that they will "return as now we see them."

Therefore, the meaning of the poem depends on the reader's interpretation and an ability to capture a moment in time and interpret it. The poem allows the reader to get a visual picture of, as he says, a winter landscape. 

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