The winter season is on us, and I have been visiting with the elders -- looking in the old American poets to see what they had to say about it. One of the things I noticed is that all of the 19th-century poets of New England had something to say about snowfalls. Here's Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry,
Out of an uneven quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
Parian refers to a white marble from the island of Paros in Greece: It's mocking because the snow hangs classical wreaths on chicken coops. Maugre -- I don't know if the word was still in colloquial use in 19th-century Massachusetts or if this is a scholarly man's idea of playfulness -- is an old English word for "despite."
This poem I came across in the new anthology by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz's America's Favorite Poems (Norton), selections from poems chosen by a wide range of Americans who responded to the poet laureate's invitation to send him their favorite poem and comments on why they found them memorable. It comes from James Russell Lowell:
The First Snow-Fall
The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.
Every pine and fir and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twin on the elm tree
Was ridged inch-deep with pearl.
From sheds new-roofed with Carrara
Came Chanticleer's muffled crow,
The stiff rails softened to swan's-down,
And still fluttered down the snow.
I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of the snow-birds,
Like brown leaves whirling by.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently
As did robins the babes in the woods.
Up spoke our own little Mable,
Saying, "Father, who makes it snow?"
And I told of the good All-Father
Who cares for us here below.
Again I looked at the snowfall,
And thought of the leaden sky
That arches o'er our first great sorrow,
When the mound was heaped so high.
I remember the gradual patience
That fell from the cloud like snow.
Flake by flake healing and hiding
The scar that renewed our woe.
And again to the child I whispered,
"The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!"
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her:
And she, kissing back could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under the deepening snow.
Carrara is the name for a white Italian marble. (I don't know who was borrowing from whom; Emerson and Lowell read one another.) Auburn is the famous cemetery. One of the fascinating things about this book -- something that sets it apart from any other anthology that I know -- is the comments on the poems by the readers who suggested them. This poem, for example, was selected by Dorothy Stanaitis, a retired librarian from Gloucester, N.J., who wrote: "My father was the first one to wake up in our house. One of his great pleasures was to announce an overnight snowstorm by reciting, `The snow had begun in the gloaming.' Then he would watch his five children leap from bed and run to the window to see for themselves. Early one morning in later years I received a wake-up call. I answered the phone groggily and heard my father's voice: `The snow had begun in the gloaming.' My father had been gone for seven years. There have been many snowfalls since then, but I still get tears in my eyes when I wake up to the white world without his voice reciting James Russell Lowell's `The First Snowfall.' "
Here is one by Emily Dickinson:
It sifts from leaden Sieves --
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road --
It makes an Even face
Of Mountain and of Plain --
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again --
It reaches to the Fence --
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces --
It deals Celestial Veil
To Stump, and Stack -- and Stem --
A Summer's empty Room --
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them --
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen
The stills its Artisans -- like Ghosts --
Denying they have been --
The snow around the posts like -- what? lace? skin? -- something around the ankles of a queen is certainly the most peculiar image so far. And it seems typical of Dickinson that she would, in the last two lines, record with such accuracy the moment when the snow stops falling.
Here is her much-admired Longfellow on the same subject:
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodland brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.
The 20th century has been considerably more terse. Here's Wallace Stevens, downriver in Hartford, Conn.:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs.
Reprinted by permission of Stanley Burnshaw, editor of "The Poem Itself," published by the University of Arkansas Press. All rights reserved.