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enormous snowstorms at the last minute

By Stephen Burt

We had an enormous snowstorm yesterday in the greater Boston area. We I didn’t handle it perfectly, but our family got home safely in the end– and our little guy, while still no fan of snow, may even have ceased to hate his new, cute snowsuit.
The storm also got me thinking about the representation, in poems recent and not-so-recent, of really bad weather in general, and of snow and snowstorms in particular. Does it go back to antiquity? What’s the first poem in English, or in some other European language, to describe, or celebrate, a snowstorm? What are the best?
Inconclusive, underinformed musings, suggestions for further reading, and snippets from favorites, below the fold.


You might start– I might start– with this very site’s set of winter poems. If you want a whole book of serious nineteenth and twentieth century poems about snow and winter, with a nod or two towards Christmas, you might do well to flip through this neat anthology, which I discovered because my wife blogs for the press that published it, but which anthology I think I would have enjoyed no matter how I came across it: along with chestnuts (literal and figurative!) such as an excerpt from J. R. Lowell’s “Snowbound,” it includes something I didn’t think I’d come across at this point in my life, a very good poem by Robert Frost which I’d never noticed before.
It doesn’t, however, go back to Shakespeare’s time. Nor, perhaps, should it. Renaissance poems and plays have plenty of storms at sea and on land, rainstorms, lightning-and-thunder storms (think of King Lear), and plenty of frozen people and things (the ice queens and icy fire of Petrarchan convention) but I can’t think of any poetic descriptions of snow storms from back then. Most of the poets writing in English at that time spend most of their time far enough south, within England, that snow storms aren’t a frequent occurence. (Know of exceptions? Send them along.).
You’d expect lots of attention to inclement weather, and maybe some moody celebrations of it, from the Romantics and from the weather-attentive 18th-century writers sometimes called Pre-Romantics, such as James Thompson (1700-1748), the guy who wrote The Seasons. And, if you read Thompson’s “Winter,” a snow-storm and an enormous, Earth-paralyzing snow-fall is part of what you get:
Earth’s universal Face, deep-hid and chill,
Is all one, dazzling, Waste. The Labourer-Ox
Stands cover’d o’er with Snow, and then demands
The Fruit of all his Toil. The Fowls of Heaven,
Tam’d by the cruel Season, croud around
The winnowing Store, and claim the little Boon,
That Providence allows.
Snowstorms are sublime and pathetic at once, for Thompson, because in their erasure of the normal (green or even brown) landscape they at once stand for death (that eraser of everything) and produce it (by causing hunger). The snowstorm in Thompson turns into, first, a spur to charity (“Now, Shepherds, to your helpless Charge be kind”) and then a reason to commune with the great writers and heroes of the classical past, since (a) a world under snow is like the land of the dead in classical myth and (b) there’s nothing much for Thompson to do in the cold and wet but stay in and read, “And hold high converse with the mighty Dead.” Thompson, in other words, depicts snow dramatically, but he doesn’t think snow is much fun.
Who does? You might think it would be Percy Shelley, what with his attraction to the sublime: I have the serious memory of finding in Shelley, years ago, a lyric poem about a snow storm, which might make him the first significant poet in English to write one, but this afternoon I’ve been unable to re-find it. I found instead this graveyard poem, with snow and ice and gloom, all of which have already fallen when the poem begins. I also took a look at Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” which sees in that Alp not anicy monument, another version of the sublime Otherworld where the dead go: “A city of death, distinct with many a tower/ And wall impregnable of beaming ice./ Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin,” since spring melts and re-freezes create a “mangled” waste on its slopes each year.
To really appreciate snow, perhaps, you have to grow up in a landscape where it’s unavoidable: not in the south of England, not even in much of the north of England, maybe in parts of Scotland, and– certainly– in New England, the source not just for the once overrated, now underrated medium-sized poem “Snow-Bound,” but for Longfellow’s apparently consoling, but in fact quietly devastating, “Snow Flakes”: rhyming “the grief of the air” with “the secret of despair,” Longfellow’s three stanzas suggest that in New England the world, the air, the people, are so sad and so guarded that their emotions are held in check and congeal, that their tears– in other cultures released as rain– must freeze and then precipitate, covering and obscuring everything, as a kind of soft, grim resignation-at-last. (The more I read Longfellow the more like Frost– and the more attractive– he seems: as with Frost, you have to ignore some of the most popular poems in order to see the thought behind the rest.)
Longfellow’s snow flakes may lie behind (though much else also lies behind) Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” surely the most widely known modern poem with snow in it– but not a poem containing a snow storm: indeed, in Stevens the snow has already fallen, and the ice has already congealed: we have been cold a long time, and ice already covers the boughs.
Thomas Hardy has a less ambitious, more reportorial, and more hopeful poem in which snow has fallen, and keeps falling– it’s a poem Donald Davie and other critics admire for its urban scene-painting and for its music. It also benefits by including a cat: at the end of the poem and the end of the storm,
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin,
And we take him in.
(You can find the whole poem online in several non-scholarly, non-authoritative sorts of places– here’s one– but nobody seems to reproduce it with the spacing Hardy intended: one more reason to look for a book.)
If you really want to see a snow storm, though, you shouldn’t wait in the London suburbs, and you shouldn’t hang around New England. You should go straight to upstate New York, where the American poet most affected by snowstorms wrote the most, and some of the best, poems about snow: that would be A. R. Ammons, raised in N.C. but long resident in Ithaca, NY, where he composed the great American anti-epic collocation of trivia, notes, weather jottings, and profound advice about how to live and what to do that he ended up calling simply The Snow Poems. One of the Snow Poems is “Christmas Eve Morning,” from which I give you three excerpts, in order and also (coincidentally) in order of increasing length:
1.
to have fun you have to need it
so little you don’t need any
2.
then the sifting thins into a sheen of
micro-lights, pane crystal flints,
twinkling down like fog-fuzzy bugs through
beams of early sun,
derived not from clouds but a haze
that barely pales the sky
3.
the tree mingling mists
on the high gap’s ridge
seem not a nature
my self, too, inhabits, brushing up
against the rockface,
leaking from boughs
but another dimension, intention or
working that asks neither my
compliance nor participation
buried yesterday afternoon
today Uncle Emory
begins his first
full day in
the grave, the
whole round of
the dark service,
the wageless hours
and hourless wages
but what a brilliant
finish to the snowstorm
(another due tonight)
Even for Ammons, snow brings us closer to the land of the dead– but it’s also (as it was not for Thompson) a renewal, a sign of the neat parts of nature we have yet to fathom, something that can simply be fun to watch.
I’ve been thinking about the more shapely book he wrote next for a short essay you might see around these parts next month. And I– and you– will probably think of twenty more poems about snow this weekend, especially if (as is true here) you’ll see more snow fall. Right now, though, the inexhaustible blend of capacious acceptance with resignation, of comic riffing onward and sad stopping-short, with which Ammons greets the Ithaca region’s inexhaustible snow seems to me like the first and the last word. Or maybe the next-to-last: the last being “Groceries.” I ought to get some now.
UPDATE: If you live anywhere near where I live, and you like Ammons half as much as I do, you might check out watercolors by Ammons himself, apparently on view at Pierre Menard Gallery (10 Arrow St, Cambridge, Mass.) right now.

Comments (13)

  • On December 14, 2007 at 4:26 pm Aseem Kaul wrote:

    How about Ovid:
    “But when grim winter thrusts forth its rough-set visage,
    and earth lies white under marmoreal frost,
    when gales and blizzards make the far northern regions
    unfit for habitation, then Danube’s ice
    feels the weight of those creaking wagons. Snow falls: once fallen
    it lies for ever, wind-frosted. Neither sun
    nor rain can shift it. Before one fall’s melted, another
    comes, and in many places lies two years,
    and so fierce the gales, they wrench off rooftops, whirl them
    headlong, skittle tall towers.
    Men keep out this aching cold with furs and stitched breeches,
    only their faces left exposed,
    and often the hanging ice in their hair tinkles,
    while beards gleam white with frost.
    Wine stands unbottled, retaining the shape of its vessel,
    so that what you get to drink isn’t liquor, but lumps.”
    – Tristia III.10 lines 9-24 (translation by Peter Green)
    The original – which goes on for quite a bit longer- for those fluent in Latin (which I’m not):
    At cum tristis hiems squalentia protulit ora,
    terraque marmoreo est candida facta gelu,
    dum prohibet Boreas et nix habitare sub Arcto,
    tum patet has gentes axe tremente premi.
    Nix iacet, et iactam ne sol pluuiaeque resoluant,
    indurat Boreas perpetuamque facit.
    Ergo ubi delicuit nondum prior, altera uenit,
    et solet in multis bima manere locis;
    tantaque commoti uis est Aquilonis, ut altas
    aequet humo turres tectaque rapta ferat.
    Pellibus et sutis arcent mala frigora bracis,
    oraque de toto corpore sola patent.
    Saepe sonant moti glacie pendente capilli,
    et nitet inducto candida barba gelu;
    nudaque consistunt, formam seruantia testae,
    uina, nec hausta meri, sed data frusta bibunt.
    Quid loquar, ut uincti concrescant frigore riui,
    deque lacu fragiles effodiantur aquae?
    Ipse, papyrifero qui non angustior amne
    miscetur uasto multa per ora freto,
    caeruleos uentis latices durantibus, Hister
    congelat et tectis in mare serpit aquis;
    quaque rates ierant, pedibus nunc itur, et undas
    frigore concretas ungula pulsat equi;
    perque nouos pontes, subter labentibus undis,
    ducunt Sarmatici barbara plaustra boues.
    Vix equidem credar, sed, cum sint praemia falsi
    nulla, ratam debet testis habere fidem.
    Vidimus ingentem glacie consistere pontum,
    lubricaque inmotas testa premebat aquas.
    Nec uidisse sat est. Durum calcauimus aequor,
    undaque non udo sub pede summa fuit.
    Si tibi tale fretum quondam, Leandre, fuisset,
    non foret angustae mors tua crimen aquae.
    Tum neque se pandi possunt delphines in auras
    et quamuis Boreas iactatis insonet alis,
    fluctus in obsesso gurgite nullus erit;
    inclusaeque gelu stabunt in marmore puppes,
    nec poterit rigidas findere remus aquas.
    Vidimus in glacie pisces haerere ligatos,
    sed pars ex illis tum quoque uiua fuit.
    (from The Latin Library)

  • On December 14, 2007 at 4:56 pm Don Share wrote:

    Well, we’ve been talking about Bunting, so how ’bout his “Snow’s on the fellside…”- a version of Horace (Odes, I ix)?
    It begins:
    Snow’s on the fellside, look! How deep;
    our wood’s staggering under its weight.
    The burns will be tonguetied while frost lasts…

  • On December 14, 2007 at 5:06 pm Steve wrote:

    I’ll take it! But note that neither poet seems to like watching snow fall: we enjoy wild weather more now that it threatens us less. To Ovid by the Black Sea, as to James Thomson, snowstorms are no fun.

  • On December 15, 2007 at 7:19 am Ben Friedlander wrote:

    All too brief but well worth reading if you’re writing an essay on the subject: the pages on “snow-scenery” in Lucy Larcom’s Landscape in American Poetry (1879), less a monograph than a series of lovingly introduced quotes arranged by theme.
    Keeping to that period, Harper’s published “A Christmas Garland of American Poems” in 1857 (not new works, but recent and already classic favorites with new illustrations, only a few of them actually Christmas poems), and this includes “Snow—A Winter Sketch” by Ralph Hoyt:
    ‘Tis winter, yet there is no sound
    Along the air,
    Of winds upon their battle-ground,
    But gently there,
    The snow is falling—all around
    How fair—how fair!
    Hoyt was one of the NY literati that Poe wrote about in Godey’s Lady’s Book, and his poem (it goes on for 21 stanzas) is a precedent I suspect for Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.” It’s no match for “Snow-Bound,” of course.
    The whole Garland is well worth looking at, though. I found it through the Library of Congress’s American Memory website, in particular through The Ninteenth Century in Print: Periodicals. I saved the images for easy access (and teaching purposes) in my flickr account (collected here).
    As for Ammons, I’m very fond of this one from Sumerian Vistas, which might well be a comment on Emerson’s “The Snow Storm”:
    Eidos
    On those late March afternoons
    when a flurry nearly rain
    eases over and the few big
    flakes, old flies, stall,
    lift, dive, sweep in a slow
    loose-knotted breeze, I watch
    the lineations of the dance, air’s
    least-holding script, whose
    figures carve on my retina
    motions the mind mulls over
    and subdues to
    intelligible reticula, informing shapes.
    —————
    Fun subject!

  • On December 15, 2007 at 1:50 pm Don Share wrote:

    Ben,
    I’m so glad you mentioned Lucy Larcom! Though mostly known as a poet, today it’s her prose writing that seems really outstanding. Happily, her work is available via Google books:
    Landscape In American Poetry is here.
    (Her A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory, as well as letters and diary are also worth reading.)

  • On December 15, 2007 at 2:30 pm Steve wrote:

    Of course, Emerson’s snow storm! Which antedates Whitter’s, I think. Emerson’s poem is a good example of a poem that looks good on first reading but looks better once you try to use historical imagination as well: snow-storms are less scary now than they used to be, and Emerson’s appreciation for its majesty (its alienated majesty, if you like), even its “frolic,” would have been really new.

  • On December 15, 2007 at 4:19 pm yesandno wrote:

    Great post. I adore this poem by David Berman.
    SNOW
    Walking through a field with my little brother Seth
    I pointed to a place where kids had made angels in the snow.

    For some reason, I told him that a troop of angels

    had been shot and dissolved when they hit the ground.
    He asked who had shot them and I said a farmer.
    Then we were on the roof of the lake.

    The ice looked like a photograph of water.
    Why he asked. Why did he shoot them.
    I didn’t know where I was going with this.
    They were on his property, I said.
    When it’s snowing, the outdoors seem like a room.
    Today I traded hellos with my neighbor.

    Our voices hung close in the new acoustics.

    A room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling.
    We returned to our shoveling, working side by side in silence.
    But why were they on his property, he asked.
    from Actual Air, 1999
    Open City Books, New York
    Copyright 1999 by David Berman.

  • On December 16, 2007 at 4:36 am Alicia (ae) wrote:

    Thanks for these. I love snow poems.
    Surely the snow storm enters Western Literature with the celebrated simile in Iliad XII (280 ff), both sublime and strange in its comparison of a violent volley of stones to a thick snowfall:
    here in the Penguin prose Martin Hammond translation:
    So these two, shouting their encouragement, spurred on the Achaians’ fighting. Like the flakes of snow which fall thick on a winter’s day, when Zues the counsellor has begun to snow and reveals his weaponry to making: he still the winds and pours down a fall without ceasing, until he has covered the peaks of the high mountains and the sharp headlands and the plains where clover grows and the rich fields of men’s farming: and along the grey sea it piles on inlets and capes, though the waves beating in on it can keep it back: all else is enfolded from above, when Zeus’ shower falls heavy–so thick flew the stones on both sides, on the Trojans, and on the Achaians from Trojan hands, as they hurled them at each other, and the noise of it rose over the whole length of the wall.

  • On December 16, 2007 at 12:10 pm Alicia (AE) wrote:

    oops… sorry about the, er, flurry of typos. Should start:
    Like the flakes of snow which fall thick on a winter’s day, when Zeus the counsellor has begun to snow and reveals his weaponry to mankind: he stills the finds and pours down a fall without ceasing…
    etc.

  • On December 16, 2007 at 1:26 pm Steve wrote:

    Unless there’s snow in Gilgamesh, I think Alicia has it! But the question of when something first becomes a suitable topic for lyric (and the related question of when something first seems to be worth appreciating in poetry for its own sake) is different from the question of when it appears in literature. Or when readers first think it belongs in lyric… Alicia, have we already discussed Michael Longley’s Praxilla poem in this space? If not, do you want to bring it up? Should I? I think it’s time for a Praxilla post.

  • On December 16, 2007 at 2:43 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Smile, Death, see I smile as I come to you
    Straight from the road and the moor that I leave behind,
    Nothing on earth to me was like this wind-blown space,
    Nothing was like the road, but at the end there was a vision or a face
    And the eyes were not always kind.
    Smile, death, as you fasten the blades to my feet for me,
    On, on let us skate past the sleeping willows dusted with snow;
    Fast, fast down the frozen stream, with the moor and the road and the vision behind,
    (Show me your face, why the eyes are kind!)
    And we will not speak of life or believe in it or remember it as we go.
    – Charlotte Mew

  • On December 17, 2007 at 12:03 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    SNOW
    In the gloom of whiteness,
    In the great silence of snow,
    A child was sighing
    And bitterly saying, ‘Oh,
    They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
    The down is fluttering from her breast!’
    And still it fell through the dusky brightness
    On the child crying for the bird of the snow.
    – Edward Thomas

  • On December 17, 2007 at 3:52 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    The anti-muse Typo seems to be plaguing me. I guess for me these extended similes in epic are indeed lyric interludes, though I know not strictly in the sense you mean.
    Yes, let’s have more Longley!


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 14th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.