It has been a long winter for me and it is far from over. My first snowy days and nights occurred in Northern Vermont in late November and while the snow there was persistent, slow falling and light, the snow here, in Connecticut, since mid-December has been heavy, quick, and drifting. Habit of mind: when I walk or snowshoe in the falling snow, or watch it descend from inside, lines from snow poems I love come to me. Inevitably, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snowstorm”––first line tells us, the storm is “Announced by all the trumpets of the sky”.
Here is a short poem that has charmed generations and runs through my mind on snowy days, written by the internationally famous poet-superstar of his era, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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.
[Before beginning to talk about “Snow-Flakes” I want to let you know that you can listen to a remarkably beautiful reading of this poem—an audio file—at the Poetry.org website: here’s the link: “Snow-Flake”].
I notice first how similar this opening is to the opening of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, an early version of which was published first as “A Child’s Reminiscence” in 1859, and then in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass (the title having morphed into “A Word Out of the Sea”). Is it possible Longfellow read Whitman’s poem before writing his “Snow-Flake”? Anaphora is the trope both use. Whitman’s first line begins with “Out of the . . . “; his second repeats that, as does his third; then he switches to “Over the . . . “. Longfellow’s first line begins with “Out of the . . . “, his second, “Out of the . . . “ his third, “Over the . . . “. Hum. Might it be? Is the great Longfellow picking up Whitman’s riff?
Whether or not Longfellow was echoing Whitman, there is the famous rhetorical device, first used by the ancient Greeks and perfected by Cicero, of the periodic sentence: a sentence not grammatically complete until the final clause or phrase. One of the ways in which Longfellow’s poem embodies the falling snow is through this sentence structure: a periodic sentence unfolds gradually such that the idea expressed in the subject/verb group appears only at the end of the sentence. Although all that is needed is a succession of dependent clauses used as modifiers that come before the independent clause, traditionally, for eloquence (or elegance), writers chose parallel phrases or clauses at the opening. For both Whitman and Longfellow (being Old Testament readers), this rhetorical device would have been a sure winner.
The first error message one receives when reading “Snow-Flakes,” and that needs to be turned off before one can appreciate this little gem, is the problem of the pathetic fallacy, an over-the-top variant of personification. Nearly impossible for us 21st century types to grant validity to the notion that “the Air” has a “bosom”, that it wears “garments”, and can be “troubled”, and especially that the sky whispers––of all the melodramatic possibilities–– “the secret of despair”. Give me a break! the anti-Romantic, skeptical, cynical self says.
No doubt the turn away from using the pathetic fallacy, beginning with the French fin de siècle poets and accelerated with the Modernists, came as a response to Ruskin’s connecting the pathetic fallacy with “irrationality” and claiming that the trope created “a falseness in all our impressions of external things.” (Modern Painters, 1856). This avoidance forced extraordinary innovations that we have grown quite accustomed to, and today, plain speaking often wins the day over embroidery that is more elaborate. While the pathetic fallacy can easily become drippy, ascribing human qualities to inanimate objects and forces in nature, is a commonplace in literature across cultures and through the ages. However, there is more operating in present-day sensibilities than a Ruskinesque dislike of attributing sentiment to the non-human: we are all post-Freudian and psychologically astute. We understand projection to be a convenient dodge of the human mind; we believe emotions originate within our psyches, that they are interpretations in language that the naïve once tossed toward the skies, the seas and the beasts of the field. Irrational, yes, Mr. Ruskin––and not nearly egocentric enough for us.
The theme is human loss and grief. The “fields” have been “forsaken” by the harvesters; but we know the poet is using the word “forsaken” because he is feeling forsaken himself––by someone? By God? We know, by line 9, when we encounter “troubled heart”, that the subject is human suffering, a surmise strengthened when the word “troubled” is repeated in line 11, and in line 12, when we read that the sky reveals the “grief it feels.” Nature perceived with sympathy, mirrors human empathy.
The poet writes his poem, the one crafted and given to his readers; “the poem of the air” falls, as snowflakes fall, “Slowly, in silent syllables.” The poet can see “the poem of the air”, but not hear it; whereas the “wood and field” can hear, and presumably read it––thus it is “recorded” in nature’s own language.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its major trope, the pathetic fallacy, “Snow-Flake” has a charm and a loveliness admired for generations. So how does Longfellow accomplish the poem’s many effects? The poet does this formally, of course, and metrically, with a plethora of sound devices and subtle transformations, and primarily, I think, with falling meters. That is, Longfellow begins a number of lines with anapests and ends some of those lines on an unaccented syllable (such that the rhythm of the line seems to fall), and then he turns to iambs predominately in the last two lines of each sestet. The second and fourth lines of each stanza, and the second, fourth and fifth lines of the third stanza, end in feminine rhymes, the stress falling on the penultimate syllable: “shaken”, “forsaken”, “expression”, “confession” and “recorded”, “hoarded” and “revealed.” The monosyllabic words in the last two lines of each stanza slows down the pace further and contributes to the sense of snow falling.
Three sestets; lines 2 and 4 indented (or offset), lines 5 and 6 indented twice, such that on the graphic level, each stanza steps down visually. Ah hah! Another fallacy: the fallacy of imitative form. Yes, a good bit of that going on in this poem. The stresses of individual feet fall, the number of feet in each line declines, and, consequently (and aided by those indents) the poem narrows down the page. So much enactment of the subject matter: it is enough to make the head spin.
The pattern I see is 3-5-4-4-3-2 in stanza one; 4-5-4-4-4-2 in stanza two; and 3-5-4-4-4-2 in stanza three; so in each case, the second line has the most beats. The rhyme scheme is ABABCC, DEDEFF, and AGAGFF, with one important shift in tense as “reveals” in the fifth line of stanza two becomes “revealed” in stanza three. Longfellow picks up, in the third stanza, the A rhyme of the first: Air/bare, air/despair. In the end-line position the poem has one exact rhyme: “Air” and “air”; and one nearly exact rhyme: “reveals” and “revealed”. Each sestet ends with a couplet, the second line of which has one or two fewer beats than the first (a falling off within a falling down).
There is movement on the semantic level that the second appearance of the word “air” signifies. “Snow-Flakes” begins with rather fanciful imagery: the personified figure of the storm (who has a “bosom of . . . Air”) and shakes snow from the folds of her garment (made of “clouds”). The snow falls over the now “forsaken” fields. The harvest is in; the woods are “brown and bare”. The third stanza tells us that the storm has “hoarded” the snow, and suggests it has waited to whisper and reveal “the poem of the air”. In the first stanza, the “Air” is figured as a woman (“her garment”); but in the third stanza, the figure of “the Air” is erased, replaced by “the poem of the air” which is not reified (“air” no longer capitalized), and no longer personified (the possessive pronoun in the third stanza is “its”). Air’s garment was comprised of “cloud-folds”, but now, in stanza three, the “bosom” itself is “cloudy”, and the secret it has “hoarded” “long”, is “despair”.
The movement is metapoetic: a poet writes the word “poem” knowing it references the poem wherein it resides (in addition to whatever else it may reference). Why does Longfellow make this move from the neutral shaking down of snowflakes on the part of the “Air”, who does so seemingly benignly (“Silent, and soft, and slow/Descends the snow”), to this act of inscription? “Air” is figured as a woman, the “poem of the air” is not, yet it still acts with human intention. I think it is a signal to the reader that the poet is aware of his own displaced emotion.
The second stanza has a turn of its own. The poet uses the third-person plural possessive “our” as he characterizes a habit of mind many of us have (particularly 19th century Christian readers), we search the sky and read into the color, shape and motions of clouds, signs of God’s presence and perhaps of His temperament. When I was a child, I was told that when there was one spot among the clouds where they opened up into a brighter light, that was a portal to Heaven. I was encouraged to always look for such an indication of God’s presence. This is what I think Longfellow suggests in these lines:
Even as our cloudy fancies take Suddenly shape in some divine expression
The “troubled heart” is the subject of lines 3 through 6 of the second stanza. The speaker, standing in the falling snow, looks up at the cloudy sky and imagines in the shapes of the clouds an expression of God’s presence; the suggestion (“the white countenance”) is that he sees the face of God. This “divine expression” moves him, with his “troubled heart”, to speak of his sorrow, of his “despair” (perhaps aloud, perhaps inwardly, the poem does not say). I see a man standing in a field at the edge of the woods, looking up through the falling snow, and imagining in the clouds, the face of God. He cries out in his grief; gives voice to his despair. It is a “secret” because he has suppressed it (“hoarded” it a “long” time). So ultimately, this is a poem of catharsis, although all of the action has been projected onto the landscape, nonetheless, the reader senses, I think, the speaker’s emotional release.
I’ve never memorized poems––simply haven’t taken the time; but, when it is snowing, I do remember a bit of Longfellow: “This is the poem of the air” I say to myself, “Slowly in silent syllables recorded,” or simply, “Silent, and soft, and slow, descends the snow.” It lifts my spirits to say this.