As I type, my neighborhood lies blanketed under 7 inches of snow (or so), with occasional flurries still falling, and more expected off and on for the coming week. Temperatures drop to single digits tonight, which I think may be the first time I’ve lived in a place this cold. Given the above, and the fact that I walked to and from work today in the snow (about 3 miles, round trip), I’ve been remembering snatches of poetry that evoke winter and snow most powerfully for me, and I thought today, rather than look at whole poems, I’d grab at a few lines that really seem to work for me, and try to understand why.
To begin, the first stanza of a poem by Christina Rossetti:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
I used to post this stanza on my online assignment calendar for my A.P. class in midwinter break, based purely on the use of the word “midwinter” (I thought I was being clever in a sort of literary way). But over the years I came to enjoy that ritual, and to linger over the sounds of the words—the transformative power of the cold, which converts earth to iron and water to stone like some elderly alchemist, grown old and strong in his secret art. The soft overwhelming feeling of that repetition in the 3rd line, as snow surrounds, immersing the world so fully that it consumes even itself, burying snows under snow. Rossetti is a master of sound, and here she brings the tones together just perfectly for my ear, the long “o” of the wind’s moaning and the somehow gentler long “o” of the hushed snowfall reinforcing each other. Gorgeous, and always on my mind this time of year, especially in weather like this.
And of course, I cannot neglect to mention Wallace Stevens’ thirteenth way of looking at a blackbird—and my favorite way:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Of course the pinnacle here is his first line, one of the best lines in poetry (to my mind) and one of those lines that makes me want to trade in my right arm (well, maybe just a finger or two) to get access to that same Muse. The oppression of these shortened Northern winter afternoons, with the low light and the feeling of clouds weighing on your back and the hasty feeling of sun setting much too fast, for me happens immediately in that tight little phrase. And then he rides right over that feeling with the addition of two important facts—it’s snowing (easily observed) and it’s going to snow (which always delights me, whether I interpret it as his depressed conviction that it’s not letting up anytime soon, or his depressed conviction that even if it lets up, it’ll be back for more before too long). Juxtaposed, as in the poem’s other 12 stanzas, is the blackbird—poised, distinct against the canvas of the cedar’s evergreen, remote somehow from the world of snow and yet identified closely for me with the hovering evening, the darkness at the heart of the winter light. Stevens doesn’t do it for everybody, and he doesn’t do it for me often enough (no matter how many times Professor Brenner read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” to us, I never got it), but in this poem it happens to me like Mozart, where I sit agape that a man can toss out this many sparkling images with such careless ease.
Lastly, a poem on which I can barely comment: Robert Frost’s tiny clockwork gem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”. I wanted to excerpt, but I just have to give you the whole thing:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
My personal history with this poem is a long one—it’s one of the first poems I ever memorized, it’s one of the first poems I ever tried to imitate. It’s closely associated with my memory of the first time I ever went for a walk with the girl (then a friend) who became my wife. The last lines were taped to the mirror in my bathroom for a year for reasons too complex (and in some ways personal) to get into. Part of what I like about it is how grafted it is onto my mind—I can recite it at the drop of a hat, and do (to myself, usually under my breath) when I see the right scene, or feel the right breeze. It is a joke (and one he himself had no problems telling) that America’s greatest poet of winter and ice was a man named Frost. He was born to the work.
The snow in this poem is in some ways just a regular, real snowfall. The speaker in the poem stops to watch it because he can, because it is one of the luxuries of being out for a long journey that time can be lost like this, a minute or a half an hour, without feeling the keen edge of the clock’s hand sweeping you forward. The snow is also mythic, full of symbolic power. It transfixes the speaker because it is the place he would like to be swallowed up by. Here, far from the world, far from anyone who could lay claim to woods and lake and snow with some human piece of paper, the speaker would like to remain. He is tethered loosely to the earth, drawn back to it only by the gentle sounds of his horse, the easy sweep of the snow that will bury him if he stays, and the knowledge of a promise he has made, if only to himself. He feels a longing for the peace of death.
This isn’t morbid, or if it is, it’s entirely suitable. The world’s seasons awaken these feelings in us. The speaker in the poem moves on, returns to life and duty and promise as the world will in the expected spring, but he leaves a part of himself behind on that silent hillside. Someday he will stop there again, and for good.
Snow, as you can see, plays on a lot of images and feelings for me. Beauty, freedom, danger, death. I expect it does the same for you. If there’s a poem or a stanza or a line somewhere that “captures” winter or snowfall for you, I hope you’ll share it in a comment on this post. I always like adding to my personal library.