Snowbound, Part One of Two

What I don't like about where I live is that snow never falls. I saw a glass ball that has a snowman in it. You shake the globe and "snow" falls. I bought it. I put it in my bedroom. I get up in the morning and shake the globe and watch snow drift and swirl onto the rim of the snowman's black top hat. I miss snow. I go to my bookshelves and search -- in poems, novels, essays, short stories -- for snowfalls, snowstorms, blizzards, icicles, sleigh rides, ice-skating.The poem that we learned in school is Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

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.

It is the poem that ends with that grim quatrain to which teachers resorted to introduce us to the enigmatic element in poetry. 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.

The teacher always asked, "What do you suppose the poet intended with his 'promises to keep?'" I didn't care then, and don't now, what Frost intended. I am satisfied to say out loud: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Those seven words start snow sifting through cold air, sticking on bare black boughs.Frost's poem "The Onset," less well known, offers a more closely observed snow that

...lets down as white

As may be in dark woods, and with a song

It shall not make again all winter long

Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground. Easily as wonderful a Frost snow poem is "Dust of Snow," whose first quatrain so quickly establishes its presence that words vanish and nothing remains but...

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree.

Basho's On Love and Barley contains three haiku, the first of which "works" in much of the way of the Frost four lines -- the words disappear, the world to which the words point, remains.

Snowy morning --

one crow

after another.

Come, let's go


till we're buried.

Snow-whisk sweeping

this path,

forgets the snow. This bit of snow writing is not a poem, but it's written by a poet. Why we construe from his name an adjective that describes its object as "heroic -- or, 'mock 'heroic -- and romantic" comes clear once more when we read what Lord Byron, on January 5, 1821, wrote in his journal:

Rose late -- dull and drooping -- the weather dripping and dense. Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday. Roads up to the horse's belly, so that riding (at least for pleasure) is not very feasible. Read the conclusion, for the fiftieth time (I have read all W. Scott's novels at least fifty times), of the third series of Tales of My Landlord-- grand work -- Scotch.

Clock strikes -- going out to make love. Somewhat perilous, but not disagreeable.

And, remember this, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"?

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow,

Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man" stalks you for years, and finally one day hits you in the heart. Were I going to give the poem a title based upon the effect it has, I'd title it "Exit Wound."

One must have a mind of


To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the Pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

None of these is my favorite snow poem (although the Stevens comes close). That is reserved for Robert Penn Warren's "Function of Blizzard." Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year's first snow, would recite this poem. We would take the book with us, outside, and stand on the street corner under lamplight and read the poem out loud together. Last week, standing at his window he saw that snow was falling on the mountains. He called me and read:

God's goose, neck neatly wrung, is being plucked.

And night is blacker for the plethora

Of white feathers except when, in an air-tower beam,

Black feathers turn white as snow. Which is what they are. And in the blind trajectory travelers scream toward silence.

Black ruins of arson in the Bronx are whitely

Redeemed. Poverty does not necessarily

Mean unhappiness. Can't you hear the creak of bed-slats

Or ghostly echo of childish laughter?

Bless Needle plunging into pinched vein.

Bless coverings-over, forgettings.

Bless snow, and chains beating undersides of fenders.

Bless insane sirens of the Fire Department

And Christmas whirl of alarm lights. Bless even

Three infants locked in a tenement of Harlem.

God's bosom is broad. Snow soon will cover the anguished ruin.

Bless snow! Bless God, Who must work under the hand of

Fate, who has no name. God does the best

He can, and sometimes lets snow whiten the world

As a promise -- as now of mystic comfort to

The old physicist, a Jew, faith long since dead, who is getting

High-lonesome drunk by the frosted window of

The Oak Room bar in the Plaza. And bless me, even

With no glass in my hand, and far from New York, as I rise

From bed, feet bare, heart freezing, to stare out at

The whitening fields and forest, and wonder what

Item of the past I'd most like God to let

Snow fall on, keep falling on, and never

Melt, for I, like you, am only a man, after all.

It's difficult to know, after that, which so nearly says all there is to say about man and God and love and snow, what can follow. Joseph Wood Krutch in Twelve Seasons suggests: "The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only."For 20 years I've been reading and marking in my copy of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. Bachelard meditates upon what he calls "praiseworthy space" -- the closets, corners, cellars, garrets that attract and focus the poetic imagination. In chapter two, "House and Universe," Bachelard "reads" houses and rooms "written" by writers.

Although at heart a city man, Baudelaire sensed the increased intimacy of a house when it is besieged by winter. In Les Paradis artificiels (p. 280), he speaks of Thomas de Quincey's joy when, a prisoner of winter, he read Kant, with the help of the idealism furnished by opium. The scene takes place in a cottage in Wales: "Isn't it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn't winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs."

Reading Baudelaire's passage, Bachelard suggests that we too are "'swathed' in the blanket of winter."

And we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors. Further on in this deep-winter "artificial Paradise," Baudelaire declares that dreamers like a severe winter: "Every year they ask the sky to send down as much snow, hail, and frost as it can contain. What they really need are Canadian and Russian winters. Their own nests will be all the warmer, all the downier, all the better beloved." Like Edgar Allan Poe, a great dreamer of curtains, Baudelaire, in order to protect the winter-girt house from cold, added "heavy draperies that hung down to the floor. Behind dark curtains, snow seems to be whiter. Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate."

Russians, of course, dependably produce snow description. Chekhov's "Heartache" opens thus:

Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, peoples' shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps he would not find it necessary to shake it off. His nag,too, is white and motionless.

From Chekhov's terrifying "An Attack of Nerves": If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving specks:it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vasilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows.... The cab men, the horses, and the passersby were white.

One of the oddest snow scenes occurs in Tolstoy's War and Peace, during a snowy Christmas season. Natashia, Sonya, and Nikolai costume themselves in clothes of the opposite gender -- Natashia as a hussar, Sonya a Circassian with burnt cork eyebrows and a moustache, Nikolai as an old lady in a farthingale. Nikolai wants to go out in his troika and proposes a visit to a family who lives some four versts across the snow. Within minutes the group gathers in the troika -- which is draped with harness bells -- and are off.

Nikolai, in his old lady's dress over which he had belted his hussar's cloak, stood in the middle of the sledge, reins in hand. It was so light that he could see the moonlight reflected in the metal of the harness and in the eyes of the startled horses... Nikolai set off after the first troika; the other two noisily followed, their runners whining. ... As they drove by the garden the shadows cast by the bare trees fell across the road obscuring the bright moonlight, but as soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them.... Nikolai glanced at Sonya and bent down to look more closely into her face. A quite new, sweet face with black eyebrows and moustache -- so near yet so remote in the moonlight -- peeped up to him from her sable furs.

One of the classic cold-weather novels is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which suggests Hans Castrop's confinement in a tuberculosis sanitarium as analogy to Europe's post-World War I crisis:

[T]he winter came mildly on, at first no different from many a day they had seen in the height of summer. The wind had been two days in the south, the sun bore down,the valley seemed shrunken, the side walls at its mouth looked near and bald. Clouds came up, behind Piz Micheland Tinzenhorn, and drove north-eastwards. It rained heavily. Then the rain turned foul, a whitish-grey, mingled with slow-flakes -- soon it was all snow, the valley was full of flurry; it kept on and on, the temperature fell appreciably, so that the fallen snow could not quite melt, but lay covering the valley with a wet and threadbare white garment, against which showed black the pines on the slopes.

For seven days snow falls across Mann's valley. And then, this:

The world, this narrow, lofty, isolated world up here, looked now well wadded and upholstered indeed: no pillar or post but wore its whitecap; the steps up to the entrance of the Berghof had turned into an inclined plane; heavy cushions, in the drollest shapes, weighed down the branches of the Scotch firs -- now and then one slid off and raised up a cloud of powdery white dust inits fall. Round about, the heights lay smothered in snow; their lower regions rugged with the evergreen growth, their upper parts, beyond the timber line, softly covered up to their many-shaped summits. The air was dark, the sun but a pallid apparition behind a veil.Yet a mild reflected brightness came from the snow, a milky gleam whose light became both landscape and human beings, even though these latter did show red noses under their white or gaily-coloured woolen caps.

Cynthia Ozick, in Chapter Four of The Messiah of Stockholm, places Lars Andemening at night on foot in Stockholm.

There was a bitter wind now, lording it over the black one o'clock. The blackness went on throwing the snow into Lars's face, and he packed his scarf over his nose and mouth -- how warm his breath was in the little cave this made!...The spiraling flakes stuttered around him like Morse code. A smell of something roasting, what was that? Chimneys.... Under the screen of revolving flakes the steeples had the look of whirling Merlin hats.

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