Writing in the New Year

  • Themes: History, Literature

While less prominent in literature than Christmas, the New Year has inspired a number of distinguished writers and poets.

A New Year's eve in the Victorian period.
A New Year's eve in the Victorian period. Credit: Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Unlike its cousin, Christmas, New Year doesn’t feature prominently in literature. Perhaps writers steer clear of it because they find its associations too obvious. It’s a time of fresh starts, new chapters and corners turned; it signifies resolution, restoration and redemption. Perhaps writers feel that a character ringing out the old at this calendrical moment won’t ring true. Or that dark drama unfolding over such a supposedly happy and hopeful time is trying too hard or not trying at all. Perhaps they just believe New Year has been done to death, but it hasn’t.

There are, however, some notable examples. Where New Year pops up most is in poetry. Some poets have tackled it head on. In ‘The Old Year’, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare meditates not on what is to come but what has just gone. He likens the old year to someone dear who has either absconded in the night or vanished into thin air: ‘He was a friend by every fire, / In every cot and hall – / A guest to every heart’s desire, / and now he’s nought at all.’ In contrast, Tennyson’s ‘Ring out, wild bells’ refrain from In Memoriam, sees the poet looking ahead to the prospect of a brighter, fairer future – ‘redress to all mankind’ – devoid of grief, want and suffering. While Tennyson’s church bells peal jubilantly, heralding a new beginning, the bells in A.E. Housman’s ‘New Year’s Eve’ toll mournfully, sounding ‘dead knells’ for not only the end of a year but also the end of ‘the ancient order’ of collapsed empires, old kingdoms and redundant gods.

A necessary, venerated God is appealed to in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Old and New Year Ditties’. On ‘this vigil night’, ‘this eve of resurrection’, she expresses her sadness (‘Stripped of favourite things I had / Baulked of much desired’) but takes consolation in the fact that a new year will bring her further along her ‘rugged way to heaven’. God is also present in Thomas Hardy’s ‘New Year’s Eve’. He declares that He has finished another year and ‘let the last sun down’. The speaker of the poem speaks up and questions these ‘logicless’ labours. His Creator hears him out then gets back ‘to raptness as of yore. / And opening New Year’s Day / Wove it by rote as theretofore, / And went on working evermore / In his unweeting way’.

Then there are the poets whose poems’ titles are misnomers – poems in which New Year is either glancingly alluded to or not referred to at all. Sylvia Plath’s ‘New Year on Dartmoor’ channels her own experience of taking her baby out in a frosty landscape for the first time. Objects are obstacles, ‘glass-wrapped and peculiar / Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto’ and the child is unable to negotiate the unstable ground beneath its feet: ‘Only you / Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness, / The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant’. In ‘New Year’s Eve’, D.H. Lawrence depicts a carnal scene with a pair of lovers bathed in ‘fireglow’, while in ‘A New Year Greeting’ W.H. Auden addresses the microorganisms in his skin, exhorting them to remain ‘good guests’ over the next 12 months.

In the lengthier and less frivolous ‘New Year Letter’, Auden muses on the development of Western civilisation and culture, and broods on his inability as a writer to produce words that might stop the war now raging in Europe. Elsewhere, at the beginning of Jack Kerouac’s 1959 novel Maggie Cassidy, peace still reigns. It is New Year’s Eve 1939 in a New England town, and a group of boys ‘in proud flapping topcoats of adolescence’ run wild throwing snowballs in snowy streets. It is the calm before the storm in this winter wonderland, ‘before the war, before anyone knew the intention of the world toward America’ – and also before the upheavals of adulthood. ‘They hadn’t even begun to drink,’ an already-alcoholic Kerouac informs us.

New Year serves as a springboard for wider discussion in two essays by Charles Lamb. ‘No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference’, Lamb – or rather his literary alter ego, Elia – announces at the outset of ‘New Year’s Eve’ (1821). ‘It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.’ Uninterested in the future and ‘armour-proof against old discouragements’, Lamb uses this time of year to plunge down memory lane, losing himself in ‘foregone visions and conclusions’ and even replaying former tragic love affairs.

In the less accomplished yet still lively ‘Rejoicings upon the New Year’s Coming of Age’ (1823), Lamb imagines the new year as a ‘young spark’ who organises a festive party for all the days of the year. The Hours, ‘twelve little, merry, whirligig foot-pages’, provide help, but the jester, April Fool, proves a hindrance by deliberately mixing up the seating arrangements. Twelfth Night arrives looking like a glamorous queen, while Wedding Day looks the worse for wear. Pay Day comes late, ‘as he always does’. Doomsday ‘sent word – he might be expected’. There are songs and toasts, ‘quibbles and conundrums’, and at the end of the event ‘Valentine and pretty May’ leave together ‘in one of the prettiest silvery twilights a Lover’s Day could wish to set in’.

The writer that engaged most often and most directly with New Year was Charles Dickens. New Year was important to him, a time for jollity and revelry with family and friends. An 1836 essay entitled ‘The New Year’ gets underway with the following opening salvo: ‘Next to Christmas-day, the most pleasant annual epoch in existence is the advent of the New Year.’ Dickens doesn’t count himself among that ‘lachrymose set of people who usher in the New Year with watching and fasting’. He goes on to describe his ideal way of seeing ‘the old fellow out, and the new one in’: a party comprising well-dressed guests, wide-ranging conversation (‘the weather, and the theatres, and the old year, and the last new murder’) and dining, drinking and dancing quadrilles.

In 1859, Dickens returned to the topic in another article for his journal Household Words. ‘New Year’s Day’ consists of a series of vivid recollections of New Years from over the course of Dickens’ life. There are snapshots from his childhood: one New Year he is taken to a toyshop where he chooses a wand – only to learn the hard way that it doesn’t create magic. On another occasion he is carried downstairs and presented to a roomful of silent strangers (this particular memory haunted him). On one New Year’s Day in his youth, he fights a duel, ‘furious with love and jealousy’. And in adulthood he enjoys New Year stints in Genoa and Paris. (Not every trip to Paris involved regular tourist-trail sightseeing: in the impressionistic sketch ‘Travelling Abroad’, from 1860, Dickens reveals that he spent one New Year’s morning visiting the city’s morgue.)

Dickens finest representation of New Year is in his 1844 novella The Chimes. Described by its creator as ‘a whimsical kind of masque’, the satirical story follows Trotty Veck, an elderly ticket-porter, who has little to rejoice in on New Year’s Eve. The papers and politicians have rammed home that working-class people like him are stains on society. He was ‘born bad’ and as a consequence has ‘no right to a New Year’. But when the bells ring at midnight, goblins emerge and present Trotty with a series of visions that chase away his despairing thoughts and show that he is a worthy individual with a reason to live and not, as he believed, ‘behind-hand with the world’.

The Chimes is from the same mould as A Christmas Carol, published the previous year. Once again, Dickens set out to underscore the plight of the poor and ‘shame the cruel and the canting’ during the festive period. Fiction with a built-in message is the Dickens way of dealing with New Year. While some readers admire The Chimes for its satirical swipes, others view it as sentimental.

How else to depict New Year in literature? With celebration or contemplation? By harking back or looking forward? Maybe those writers that have gone near New Year have taken the wrong approach. Maybe it isn’t an occasion to take seriously. In which case the American poet Ogden Nash gets closest to the mark with the comically cautious ‘Good Riddance, But Now What?’

Come, children, gather round my knee;

Something is about to be.

Tonight’s December thirty-first,

Something is about to burst.

The clock is crouching, dark and small,

Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.

Duck! Here comes another year.


Malcolm Forbes