J.G. Whittier: Snow-Bound

“As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits which be Angels of Light are augmented not only by the Divine Light of the Sun,
but also by our common Wood fire: and as the celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same.”
COR. AGRIPPA, Occult Philosophy, Book I. chap. v.
“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 farm-house 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.”
EMERSON.

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east; we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore,
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.

Meanwhile we did our nightly chores, —
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd’s-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold’s pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the wingàd snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

So all night long the storm roared on:
The morning broke without a sun;
In tiny spherule traced with lines
Of Nature’s geometric signs,
And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!
The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers
Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,
Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;
A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,
A fenceless drift what once was road;
The bridle-post an old man sat
With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;
The well-curb had a Chinese roof;
And even the long sweep, high aloof,
In its slant spendor, seemed to tell
Of Pisa’s leaning miracle.

 

FULL POEM

Snow-Bound

John Greenleaf Whittier‘s most famous poem Snow-Bound,
is posted in the  Americana page above.

I recently found an 1897 copy of Whittier’s works printed for Houghton Mifflin by the Riverside Press in Cambridge, MA. The book was on the used book rack at my local supermarket and cost one dollar.  I had no idea how extensive Whittier’s output was. I also learned that he was a Quaker and an ardent abolitionist.

Snow-Bound is a long regional poem—but worth reading, especially if you know rural New England in winter.  And although it is regional, it is also global in its scope.  Wait until you are in the right mood. Until then, you can peruse the first few stanzas. If  your attention wanes,  go to the end and read the last stanzas.  You can always get to know this poem  section by section.

I love the description of the family friend, that …not unfeared, half welcome guest of a certain pard-like, treacherous grace who had been to Lebanon.

In the author’s  dedication he  says the following about the above-mentioned friend on p. 398 of my edition.   She was:

“…Harriet Livermore…of New Hampshire, a young woman of fine natural ability, enthusiastic, eccentric, with slight control over her violent temper , which sometimes made her religious profession doubtful. She was equally ready to exhort in school-house prayer meetings and dance in a Washington ball-room, while her father was a member of congress. She early embraced the doctrine of the Second Advent, and felt it her duty to proclaim the Lord’s speedy coming. With this message she crossed the Atlantic and spent the greater part of a long life in travelling over Europe and Asia. She lived some time with Lady Hester Stanhope, a woman as fantastic and mentally strained as herself, on the slope of Mt. Lebanon, but finally quarrelled with her in regard to two white horses with red marks on their backs which suggested the idea of saddles, on which her titled hostess expected to ride into Jerusalem with the Lord. A friend of mine found her, when quite an old woman, wandering in Syria with a tribe of Arabs, who with the Oriental notion that madness is inspiration, accepted her as their prophetess and leader. At the time referred to in Snow-Bound she was boarding at the Rocks Village about two miles from us.”

This description of Miss Livermore has greatly added to my appreciation of Snow-Bound. The poem was a best-seller back in the day, and earned  both money and nation-wide recognition for J.G. Whittier. There are so many lines of this poem that I could bring before you.  But I will leave you with these:

“Clasp, Angel of the backward look

And folded wings of ashen gray

And voice of echoes far away,

The brazen covers of thy book;

The weird palimpsest old and vast,

Wherein thou hid’st the spectral past;

Where, closely mingling, pale and glow

The characters of joy and woe;

The monographs of outlived years,

Or smile-illumed or dim with tears,

Green hills of life that slope to death,

And haunts of home, whose vistaed trees

Shade off to mournful cypresses

With the white amaranths underneath.”

That’s definitely  poetry.
Time to look up the word “palimpsest