>My Leaflessness

>Christ is Born! And on this, the third day of Christmas, I’ll share today’s reflection on Alfred Austin’s poem, “My Winter Rose,” from my work-in-progress, Sleeping With Poets.

My Leaflessness
Day 24—Sleeping With Poets

On the third day of Christmas, YourDailyPoem.com delivered this lovely piece by Alfred Austin (1835-1913) to my email inbox: “My Winter Rose.” I read it twice before deciding to try to memorize (part of) its seven stanzas. And so I guess I cheated a bit by using this poem as the subject of today’s reflection since I truly do not have time, and maybe not enough brain cells, to memorize the entire poem. But it’s just too wonderful not to be included here.

Austin’s peers and critics didn’t deem him worthy of the honor England bestowed on him by naming him Poet Laureate following Tennyson’s reign. He was considered mediocre at best. Just one more reason not to listen to the critics, but to find joy in the art we love, regardless of popular opinion or lack of critical acclaim. (I also love that he quit his job as a lawyer the day his father died, and pursued his art from that day forward.)

“My Winter Rose” came into my life on the coldest day of 2010 (so far) here in Memphis. And so as I recited the first stanza over and over while warming my hands on the portable heater near my computer desk, it seemed appropriate:

Why did you come when the trees were bare?
Why did you come with the wintry air?
When the fain note dies in the robin’s throat,
And the gables drip and the white flakes float?

Right away I thought of the Christ-child, who came in the middle of winter. Maybe this was Austin’s intent, or maybe not. I couldn’t find any written critique of this poem, so I had only my own interpretation to reflect upon. Jesus has been called the “Rose of Sharon.” Sharon was a wild plain in Palestine, where beautiful flowers grew. And the rose is considered the most perfect of all flowers. (I love this icon painting,”Walking to the Rose of Sharon,” by Jean Flower) in which she combines labrynth-walking with traditional Byzantine iconography. Nice.) And so, I continued to memorize these beautiful verses:

What a strange, strange season to choose to come,
When the heavens are blind and the earth is dumb:
When nought is left living to dirge the dead
And even the snowdrop keeps its bed!

Austin has yet to say who or what he is referring to. In fact, he saves that information until the very last verse, when he reveals its identity:

So, timely you came, and well you chose,
You came when most needed, my winter rose.


You came when most needed.
How true that has been in my own life. When I am most content with circumstances, I tend to turn less to God. And maybe God knew that the birth of His Son would have a lesser impact in the middle of spring, when our human passions are engrossed in the beauty of created things:

Could you not come when woods are green?
Could you not come when lambs are seen?….

And the year, growing confident day by day,
Weans lusty June from the breast of May?

At that point it struck me that my own creativity tends to flourish in the winter rather than in the spring, when the earth offers distractions to all my senses. In the cold of the winter, when my heart is starved for sunshine and beaches and colorful blossoms, then I can best create those things for which I hunger. And since God created us, he knows our nature, and how much more receptive we would be to the Incarnation of Christ in the wintertime. Had Christ been born in the spring or summer, Austin’s concerns were that:

Your voice would have silenced merle and thrush
And the rose outbloomed would have blushed to blush,
And Summer, seeing you paused and known
That the glow of your beauty outshone its own.

Ah, there’s the rub. The beauty of Summer would have paled in the presence of God Incarnate. And perhaps mankind would have been less receptive to something that outshone his earthy delights.

And so:

So, timely you came, and well you chose,
You came when most needed, my winter rose.
From the snow I pluck you, and fondly press
Your leaves ‘twixt the leaves of my leaflessness.


My leaflessness.
Those are my two favorite words in this beautiful poem. Because it is only when I withdraw my attention from the world’s distractions that I can see my own leaflessness—my need for God.

I was not tempted to stroll down the street and gaze upon my neighbors’ barren lawns and empty flowerbeds on this day of sub-freezing temperatures and bleak cloudiness. Instead, I was content to huddle inside my writer’s closet (we literally turned a closet into a writing space for me in the house we purchased a decade ago) and pen these words today. And now to move on to the creative work of the novel and its characters, who are waiting, this strange, strange season, for me to direct their lives and to color their world.

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