Forget ‘Auld Lang Syne’: A Brief, Depressing Tour of New Year’s Literature

According to an out of date Harris poll, New Year’s ranks sixth on the list of America’s favorite holidays, far behind Christmas and Thanksgiving. Still, even its piddling two percent support from the general population probably far outstrips its favor with writers and poets, who are known to loathe it unremorsefully. An unwelcome reminder of time’s indifference — and of our willingness to resign the recent past to the trashcan of history — New Year’s gives little cause for writerly goodwill or cheer. With this in mind, here are just a few drab examples of literary disregard for our most capricious day of celebration. In with the old, out with the new!

auldlangsyne

Forget “Auld Lang Syne”
“The Old Year,” John Clare

No holiday transition captures our mindless march of “progress” more than the turn from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day. Forget Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” with its sensible bid to honor the time gone by; turn instead to John Clare’s less sentimental confession: we want to trash the year that came before — especially 2015 — so thoroughly that no one can even recall it. Onward to another garbage year.

Old papers thrown away,

    Old garments cast aside,

The talk of yesterday,

    Are things identified;

But time once torn away

    No voices can recall:

The eve of New Year’s Day

    Left the Old Year lost to all.

proust

The New Year’s Day of Old Men
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust

A festive New Year’s spirit is something like a virus that one catches or doesn’t, and it’s fair to say that young Marcel, for once, is robustly immune. Here it occurs to him that he abides the new year like an oldster, indifferent to anything but “the unheeding fluidity” of time. (Thanks to Proust Matters.)

I might dedicate this new year, if I chose, to Gilberte, and as one bases a religious system upon the blind laws of nature, endeavor to stamp New Year’s Day with the particular image that I had formed of it; but in vain, I felt it was not aware that people called it New Year’s Day, that it was passing in a wintry dusk in a manner that was not novel to me; in the gentle breeze that floated about the column of playbills I had recognized, I had felt reappear the eternal, the universal substance, the familiar moisture, the unheeding fluidity of the old days and years.

I returned to the house. I had spent the New Year’s Day of old men, who differ on that day from their juniors, not because people have ceased to give them presents but because they themselves have ceased to believe in the New Year.

wharton

Gossip + Somber Reflection = Drinking
New Year’s Day (The Seventies),” Edith Wharton

Wharton’s underrated story captures the Janus-faced nature of the holiday. It begins the way many New Year’s parties do, with the gossipy revelations and remembrances of a ridiculous year gone by. In this case, Wharton’s narrator unravels, by way of shifting perspectives, a secret love affair that becomes scandalously public when the Fifth Avenue Hotel catches fire and our trysters find themselves caught by friends (who are eating a midday brunch). From there, though, it becomes a moral tale that reflects on the cruel passage of time. Which to choose, gossip or somber reflection, champagne or gin, as you drown out the year? Why not both?

Even then fashion moved quickly in New York, and my infantile memory barely reached back to the time when Grandmamma, in lace lappets and creaking ‘moire,’ used to receive on New Year’s day, supported by her handsome married daughters. As for old Sillerton Jackson, who, once a social custom had dropped into disuse, always affected never to have observed it, he stoutly maintained that the New Year’s day ceremonial had never been taken seriously except among families of Dutch descent, and that that was why Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had clung to it, in a reluctant half-apologetic way, long after her friends had closed their doors on the first of January, and the date had been chosen for those out-of-town parties which are so often used as a pretext for absence when the unfashionable are celebrating their rites.

langston

Does it Matter?
“New Year,” Langston Hughes

Hughes leaves it up to the reader…

The years
Fall like dry leaves
From the top-less tree
Of eternity.
Does it matter
That another leaf has fallen?

studs_final

Drunk in a Ditch
The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, James T. Farrell

Are you a young man? Are you thinking of thwarting the spiritual destitution of your era by living it up in the style of a prolish frat boy at a holiday party? If so, you should heed the warning of the infamous Studs Lonigan, who, clothed in vomit, was pickpocketed while unconscious in a ditch after carousing one New Year’s Eve.

He searched the unconscious drunk and pocketed eight dollars. He walked on.

The gray dawn spread, lightened. Snow fell more rapidly from the muggy sky of the New Year.

It was Studs Lonigan, who had once, as a boy, stood before Charlie Bathcellar’s poolroom thinking that some day, he would grow up to be strong, and tough, and the real stuff.

dartmoor

A Mother Knows (New Year’s) Best
“New Year on Dartmoor,” Sylvia Plath

Here Plath’s speaker addresses a child — or a reader enamored by the possibilities of the New Year? — as only a knowing mother could. “You lack the language to brave the ice,” she says. “You do not even know to be afraid of the new year.”

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

audensnow

A New Year’s Apocalypse
“A New Year Greeting,” W.H. Auden:

Disturbed by broader Europe, Auden had already annoyed many readers with his 1940 poem-essay “New Year Letter” some three decades before this “greeting.” Here he invites holiday readers to “settle” in “the pools” and “forests” of his “arm-pit and crotch.” But he doesn’t stop there. The poem ends with a now timely New Year’s vision of environmental apocalypse:

By what myths would your priests account

       for the hurricanes that come

   twice every twenty-four hours,

       each time I dress or undress,

   when, clinging to keratin rafts,

       whole cities are swept away

   to perish in space, or the Flood

       that scalds to death when I bathe?

   

Then, sooner or later, will dawn

       a Day of Apocalypse,

   when my mantle suddenly turns

       too cold, too rancid, for you,

   appetising to predators

       of a fiercer sort, and I

   am stripped of excuse and nimbus,

       a Past, subject to Judgement.

foxhare

Feed the Rich, Kill the New
“New Year’s Day, 2004” Frederick Seidel

Seidel’s poems always seem straightforward, but this evil dart cuts through a number of allusions on its way to the board. “I was a Traveler then upon the moor,” he writes, conjuring the speaker of Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” but also Plath’s New Year’s moor travelers (see above). All of these poems treat newness in the way a child would, and here Seidel is gleefully boyish as he walks among the Milanese women on New Year’s Day. It’s worth noting that Wordsworth’s speaker was likewise “as happy as a boy” pondering his hare. (And this, too, recalls Seidel’s “Kill Poem,” with its speaker who waits “for the New Year” — to kill the animal.) Of all recent New Year’s poems, Seidel’s is best for putting us in our current bind. By its conclusion, the speaker is indifferent to the passage of time.

It used to be called the Mayfair
Leonardo Mondadori used to stay there.
The Lobby was the bar.
Fancy Italians were on display.
They sat in the lobby for years.
They seduced from the lavish armchairs.
They told their driver and car to be waiting outside
On their European cell phones.

I was a Traveller then upon the moor.
I walked directly through and down the three stairs.
Their women were theirs.
The Milanese women wore couture.
They smoked cigarettes and smiled and did not blink.
They were going to eat at Le Cirque.
Who could have been kinder than Leonardo?
It was a long time ago.