Baby it’s Cold Outside!


A masterclass in show don’t tell

As I write this blog, the weather forecasters are full of dire warnings about snow. We are all nervous of the havoc this can bring (although I must admit to secretly hoping for a day off work!) I started thinking of writers who are good at conveying cold, and I think there are few better than John Keats in his narrative poem, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes.’ It’s a masterclass in ‘show don’t tell.’ 

The poem begins and ends in cold weather – although it has a warm and passionate heart! Keats establishes the temperature through sensuous references. The beadman’s fingers are ‘numb’, and his breath ‘frosted…like pious incense from a censer old.’ We are told the flock in their ‘woolly fold’ were ‘silent’ and that ‘the hare limped trembling through the frozen grass’ (a perfect iambic pentameter line). Those references, in order, appeal to our senses of touch, sight, smell, and sound. Only taste is missing – and that is supplied later in the poem. What an opening! By engaging nearly all of our senses, Keats is immersing us in his scene. We don’t need to read the poem on a winter’s day to imagine the freezing weather – although Keats rarely tells us it’s cold – he shows us.

Many years ago, as a young teacher, I was given a statistic: your pupils will remember one tenth of what they hear, half of what they hear and see, but nine tenths of what they hear, see and do. That certainly made me think about the content of my lessons! The more we can involve our readers actively in our descriptions, the more vivid they are likely to be for them. Long before Chekov’s famous advice (don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass), John Keats had worked out that appealing to the readers’ senses is the most powerful way to help them feel what we describe. 

This blog won’t go out until 6th March. By then, I hope, any snow will be a distant memory and spring will be in the air. But ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ will still be around to offer writers a powerful evocation of winter, and a perfect example of vivid, sensuous writing.