Frosty, Horace, Death

Some Reflections Signifying Nothing:

Frosty the Snowman is one of the few not-wholly-reprehensible morsels of regurgitated pabulum regularly offered for fireside consumption at this time of year. Compared to other ‘Christmas Classics’ such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty is at least not guilty of teaching children a disturbing or disgraceful lesson. Santa Claus is Coming to Town presents that corpulent old man from the North Pole as a Sejanus or a Stalin (he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake). Rudolph’s story teaches children that it is morally acceptable to mock someone’s physical peculiarities until the boss, inconvenienced by a sudden shift in the weather, realizes that he can profitably exploit a genetic mutation for his own purposes. Frosty, however, is the most Horatian of our Christmas tales – an inversion of the old return of spring trope. The Spring (and with it, life) return in Horace 4.7:

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
     arboribusque comae;

‘The snows have fled, the grass returns to the fields and the leaves to the trees.’

Housman regarded this as the most beautiful poem in Latin, and was famously shaken from his icy English emotional restraint when reading it to a class. Like so much of the best non-scatological Latin poetry, it is a meditation upon the brevity of life and the inevitability of death:

non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
     restituet pietas;

‘Torquatus, you will not be brought back by your name, your eloquence, or your piety.’

Frosty is in like manner a meditation on death and the brevity of life, but achieves a similar effect through the inversion of the seasons. Frosty melts after being trapped in a greenhouse. The protagonist Karen bitterly laments his death, but Santa reassures her:

‘Don’t cry, Karen. Frosty’s not gone for good. You see, he was made out of Christmas snow and Christmas snow can never disappear completely. Oh, it sometimes goes away for almost a year at a time and takes the form of Spring and Summer rain, but you can bet your boots that when a good jolly December wind kisses it, it will turn in to Christmas snow all over again!’

In the inverted ontology of Frosty’s world, Spring and Summer now stand in for death, but Winter will bring about Frosty’s rebirth. Karen is forced to reconcile herself to Frosty’s symbolic death every year at the end of the Christmas season. Yet, the pain caused by this ineluctable event is premonitory of Karen’s own death. In Horace’s poem, the cyclical departure of the seasons is precisely what guarantees their immortality. We are supposed to learn from witnessing this cycle of death every year, but we are not to extend the analogy too far:

Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
     nos ubi decidimus

‘The swift moons make good the celestial loss. But when we die…’

Catullus expresses the same thought, employing the same poetic plural for a singular celestial object (Catullus V):

soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

‘Suns can fall and return, but as soon as our brief light has fallen, we must sleep one unending night.’

I have enjoyed my winter break, and I am thankful that I was officially off of work for that time. Yet, as I walked away from work on Friday two weeks ago with a sense of giddy anticipation, I nevertheless knew that the break would come to an end, and the good times would be over. I used to take the peculiarly claustrophobic nausea which I feel on Sunday nights at face value – that is, I thought that it was about returning to work. But I enjoy my job – it can’t alone be the source of physical revulsion. Rather, Monday is when Frosty returns to the North Pole, and all of my yesterdays since last Friday ‘have lighted fools the way to dusty death.’ The end of a  vacation is a premonitory tableau of the scene in which the Reaper lays his hand upon me; I knew that this moment would come. I suppose that I don’t actually mind going back to work tomorrow – I just don’t want to die. At moments like these, one can reach for the bottle or for Seneca: ‘Thus, if death is to be feared, it must be feared always. For, what time is exempt from death?’ (Ita si timenda mors est, semper timenda est. Quod enim morti tempus exemptum est?)

Image result for frosty the snowman

3 responses

    • After re-posting it, I started to wonder: why is it that all of the oldest and most enduring literature is so concerned with the lack of permanence in this world? It’s some testament to the old phrase “verba volant scripta manent”.

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