Friday 8 January 2010

When icicles hang by the wall

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd, blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,


Tu-whit, tu-who – a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

From 'Love's Labour's Lost' by William Shakespeare

The title-page of the first quarto states that Love's Labour's Lost was performed at court before Queen Elizabeth I during the Christmas season 1597-1598. However, the play could also have been played initially in the public theatre rather than at court. Love's Labour's Lost is listed as one of the plays given during the Christmas season of 1604-1605.

The first two lines came into my head yesterday as we set out to take the dogs walking. It has been a long time since we saw icicles in this part of the world. The winters of my childhood on the East coast in Kent were raw and icicles were all too familiar. Jack Frost painted his wonderfully intricate designs on the insides of our bedroom windows and even as we shivered we delighted in their beauty. Chilblains? We endured them with various salves. Nipped toes and noses were commonplace and the thawing-out was painfully wonderful. We 'warmed up' in our winter clothing before we set foot outside to travel in damp buses or trudge on foot to our destinations. Those of a literary bent could be comforted that the environs we trod were familiar to Charles Dickens. Kent could indeed be called 'Dickens Country' even as Hampshire is known as 'Jane Austen country'.

Corksckrew hazel (Avellana contorta) The icicles melt in the sunlight only to freeze again overnight - next year's nuts will be sweet indeed!

 But I wonder still, not being a Shakespeare scholar (or indeed any kind of scholar) why Dick blew his nail? Was he simply blowing on his poor chilled fingers or was he making music blowing upon a metal object as one blows on a grass stem to produce a note? Shakespeare scholars, please help . . .


  1. Great icicles. I remember Dick blowing his nail from reading it at school. I seem to remember we thought he was warming his hands but seeing as it is 55 years ago I could be wrong.

  2. Hello Janice. Yes I remember it well. All those winters of my childhood in SE London just as you've pictured it. Warming up your clothes before you put them on and getting dressed in the kitchen because it was the warmest room in the house! Happy days!

  3. Chris - I think you're right. I've a vague recollection that we came to the same conclusion. (Where are the York notes when you need them?)
    Elcmae - we couldn't have dreamt then of central heating and house insulation :-)

  4. I certainly do recall this in school, maybe 1st or 2nd grade. I enjoyed the words on these pages so very much. My mummy used to warm my school uniform in the oven while the grits were in the kettle.


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