Expiation for the Old Year’s Ill : February, by Helen Hunt Jackson

If Stump Watch comes, can Helen Hunt Jackson be far behind?  No, she can’t – luckily for me, as I’m afraid the prospect of an intensive series of meetings about Savings and Cuts has rendered me incapable of independent thought.  Dear God, what a squalid business.

Anyway, here’s Helen, with her thoughts for the month –


Still lie the sheltering snows, undimmed and white;
And reigns the winter’s pregnant silence still;
No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are the days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year’s ill,
And prayer to purify the new year’s will:
Fit days, ere yet the spring rains blur the sight,
Ere yet the bounding blood grows hot with haste,
And dreaming thoughts grow heavy with a greed
The ardent summer’s joy to have and taste;
Fit days, to give to last year’s losses heed,
To reckon clear the new life’s sterner need;
Fit days, for Feast of Expiation placed!


What does she mean, I wonder byThese are the days when ancients held a rite/ of expiation for the old year’s ill”?

The likeliest explanation is that she is referring to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, or perhaps the earlier festival – probably of Sabine origin and originally celebrated by shepherds – of Februa, which appears to have preceded it.  This festival was intended to cleanse the city of the evils of the old year and encourage fertility and good fortune for the coming one.  Today is, of course, also Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification, and that too might have been somewhere in her mind.
On a slightly different tack, I was so delighted to see a clearly visible dawn this morning from my train window that I reverted to my old habit of train window photography … Red Sky in the Morning …

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