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Poem of the week: Snow-Flakes by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow | Poetry

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Snow-Flakes

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands 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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine in 1807, was an enormously popular poet in his time, and, notwithstanding, a serious one. His translation and editing, as well as his popularity, were intellectual bridges linking America and Europe. He died in 1882 and modernism soon overtook what many would see as his essentially 19th-century poetics. His reputation now seems unequal to his achievement.

Snow-Flakes is often thought to be a poem about, well, snow. An evocation of snowfall in the first verse suggests that this may be all the poem wants to accomplish. But it develops into a more profound meditation, and what is finally “whispered and revealed / To wood and field” is heavier than snow.

It begins with a flourish of “pathetic fallacy”: the personified Air, shaking “the cloud-folds of her garments”. The impulse is soon checked and realism takes over. Longfellow’s use of parison in the grammatical echoings of lines 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, helps him achieve a panoramic view, as if he were looking down on a scene of credible winter desolation. Finally we see and hear, precisely expressed, what’s happening: “Silent, and soft, and slow / Descends the snow.”

Then we’re lifted into a Romantic register again, with “cloudy fancies” and “divine expression.” This initial comparison is vague because it’s difficult to attribute meaning to the phrase “divine expression”. It’s a somewhat Wordsworthian idea: nature as a source of “intimations of immortality” perhaps. The implication could include prayer itself. Longfellow’s next comparison, the “white countenance” as the “confession” of “the troubled heart” is contrastingly specific: the effect is powerful. It carries us to the nub of the verse, the word “grief” in the last line. The emotion is attributed to the sky, of course, but by now the sympathetic reader might suspect something more is going on.

This seems confirmed by the startlingly declarative first line of the last verse: “This is the poem of the air …” Yes, of course, Longfellow means to indicate the snowfall, but it also seems unavoidable that “this” is also “this poem,” the one Longfellow is writing and we’re reading, “[s]lowly in silent syllables recorded.”

By now we know how closely clouds and snowfall have cohered with the poem’s emotional centre. There was a secret strength in Longfellow’s treatment of pathetic fallacy and metaphor, a deeper trope. The poem becomes a release of grief – not, of course as a poet today would make it, in intimate detail, perhaps naming names, places, times – but as a poet of Longfellow’s era might present it, through figurative and rhetorical veils, and in the restraining “music” of grammar and cadence.

Snow-Flakes appears in Longfellow’s 1863 collection, Birds of Passage, in which the poems are organised in “Flights” (Snow-Flakes is from “Flight the Second”). Although the date of the poem’s actual composition is unknown, the elegiac intensity suggests a response to the death by fire of the poet’s wife, Frances Appleton, in 1861.

Another, later poem, The Cross of Snow, is known to reference Frances’s death. The imagery of snow may be integral to Longfellow’s imaginative engagement with his almost insurmountable loss. Read in the light of the biographical, the “cloud-folds of her garment shaken” now seem to become the dress that Frances was wearing, which had caught fire in the accident: the snow-flakes themselves may represent the mourner’s slow, reluctant tears. Such an association of “great pain” with snow and freezing recalls the (then-unpublished) poem by Emily Dickinson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes …” Longfellow’s traditional poetics allow symmetrical form to the “formal feeling” but his three shapely verses still embody the suppressed “secret of despair”. Whatever the source of the emotion that slowly emerges as the subject of Snow-Flakes, the distance and containment of the style sustain its weight.

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