I have never been to the Orkney Islands, but I have the impression that it is a world marked by a sharp contrast between darkness and light. This impression is based upon the poems of George Mackay Brown. Brown meditates upon this contrast as it evolves through each of the seasons, but he has a particular affinity for the deepening darkness and the frail light of the winter solstice and Christmas.
Equinox to Hallowmas, darkness
falls like the leaves. The
tree of the sun is stark.
On the loom of winter, shadows
gather in a web; then the
shuttle of St Lucy makes a
pause; a dark weave
fills the loom.
The blackness is solid as a
stone that locks a tomb.
No star shines there.
Then begins the true ceremony of
the sun, when the one
last fleeting solstice flame
is caught up by a
Children sing under a street
lamp, their voices like
leaves of light.
George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark
(John Murray 1996).
Maeshowe (also known as "Maes Howe") is a chambered tomb located on the island of Mainland in the Orkneys. It is believed to have been constructed around 2800 B.C. (or thereabouts). In the twelfth century, it was broken into by Vikings, who left behind runic inscriptions. "St Lucy" (line 6) refers to Saint Lucy (Saint Lucia), a Christian martyr who was blinded and murdered in 304 A.D. in a Roman persecution. Her feast day is December 13, although there was a time when it coincided with the winter solstice. She is associated with light, and is sometimes depicted holding a lamp or a candle, or wearing a crown of candles.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Snow Falling on a Town"
The beautiful (but oftentimes harsh) particulars of the Orcadian natural world are concretely and palpably present in every poem that George Mackay Brown wrote. But that beauty and that harshness would count for nothing without the Orcadian human world with which the natural world is twinned and entwined. There is nothing parochial or alien about the world of Orkney brought to us by Brown: it is our
world. We simply were never aware of it.
Stars and Fish
The sky shoal is out tonight,
Stars in a surge!
Two fish on a blue plate
For one croft, for the great world-hunger.
George Mackay Brown, from a five-poem sequence titled "Five Christmas Stars" in Following a Lark
Reading Brown's poetry, one often feels that the natural world and the human world have merged, or, put differently, that they exist separately, but in perfect consonance. These lines by Wordsworth come to mind:
Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.
William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5
(Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.
"A soul which makes all one."
No more fishing till after Yule.
Will glimmer silent through cold gray halls.
The tractor is locked in the barn
With a sack of seed.
The hill humps like a white whale.
The glim of one star
On a shore boulder, where the ebb begins.
George Mackay Brown, Ibid
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"
At this time of year, the sun stays in the lower reaches of the southeastern and southwestern sky. Travelling along a low arc, it seems to barely clear the horizon. On sunny days, the empty trees cast beautiful, heartbreakingly long shadows across the meadows from early morning until nightfall. People cross the shadows, walking their dogs. One feels the need for light.
The lamp is needful in spring, still,
Though the jar of daffodils
Outsplendours lamplight and hearthflames.
In summer, only near midnight
Is match struck to wick.
A moth, maybe, troubles the rag of flame.
Harvest. The lamp in the window
Summons the scythe-men.
A school-book lies on the sill, two yellow halves.
In December the lamp's a jewel,
The hearth ingots and incense.
A cold star travels across the pane.
George Mackay Brown, Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources
(edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999).
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Evening Snow at Takanawa"
These essential human needs have never changed, have they? No anthropological, historical, or theological explanation is necessary. In my country, many of the houses in my neighborhood are now bright with Christmas lights strung along the eaves and on the branches of trees in the front yards. If you take a walk at night, you will see a Christmas tree shining within nearly every living room, casting light out into the darkness. This is part of the definition of civilization.
A star for a cradle
Sun for plough and net
A fire for old stories
A candle for the dead
By such glimmers we seek you.
George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark
I spent my childhood in the lost world of Minnesota in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a Scandinavian-American world. Most of my ancestors were Swedish, and they brought their traditions with them to this land. Each Christmas Eve, my maternal grandmother lit four white candles. The gold angels began to circle and chime.
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"