enormous snowstorms at the last minute
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:
to have fun you have to need it
so little you don't need any
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
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.
Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...