Winter Solstice: "Into the Darkest Hour"
by Nancy Arbuthnot
[Madeleine L'Engle is best known for her YA novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," but she was also a poet. This post invites your attention to her poem about the Winter Solstice. See L'Engle's short statement of faith here.]
Today, Wednesday, December 21, the official first day of winter, marks that moment of the winter solstice, when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky reaches its lowest point and the relative yearly motion of the Sun perpendicular to the horizon stops and reverses direction. (The word “solstice” descends from a Latin scientific word solstitium, from sol, "sun,” and -stitium, "stoppage").
Around the world, solstice celebrations mark the occasion with fires and light displays, as the rising sun ending the longest night of the year brings about the return to longer daylight hours. “Into the Darkest Hour,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, is set during the winter solstice, the “darkest” night of the year that yet affirms the return of light:
It was a time like this,
war & tumult of war,
A horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss--
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight--
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
In simple, powerful language, the speaker of “Into the Darkest Hour” details the time of Christ’s birth as “a time like this,/ war & tumult of war.” She marvels that the star could shine at all and that the child could be born in such darkness—“and yet there came the star/and the child most wonderfully there.” Still, the poem wonders, how can we be joyous when the world around us is so broken, “when all things fall apart”? The speaker answers her question by asserting her faith in the human heart, a resting place for divine presence.
Best known for A Wrinkle in Time, the 1963 Newbery-award-winning young adult novel about Meg, her precocious young brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin, who must outwit the forces of evil as they search for Meg’s father, who has disappeared while experimenting with time-travel, Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) also composed stories, plays, autobiographies and poems that deal with faith—the faith, as she described it, “that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”
If we are not too caught up in last-minute attentions to the business of the holiday season, Advent can be a time we can use to meditate on coming out of the darkness. In these last days before Christmas, here’s a writing exercise that may help with these meditations: Think of a time when all seemed dark. Open with a phrase such as, “It was a time when. . . ” and describe that time with three or four phrases. For emphasis, you might want to repeat “It was a time when…” for each description. In L’Engle’s poem, the speaker is a non-personalized, almost prophetic voice—“Hungry yawned the abyss.”
You might want to bring the language to a more personal level, using the first person “I”—“I felt” or “this happened to me.” Then describe what happened or what could happen to bring light to this darkness. Was it something quiet, extended over a period of time, or a more sudden change? Be sure to include figurative language--metaphors or similes or particular details that indicate, rather than state, the feelings you want to evoke. Note how powerfully and succinctly L’Engle’s image of the hungry abyss, for example, brings up all kinds of feelings of fear and desolation. Read the poem you’ve created: from nothing, light.