43 pages 1 hour read

John Greenleaf Whittier

Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1865

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Summary and Study Guide


John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (1866) is the poet’s first-person recollection of a massive two-day blizzard that socked in his family farm near the coastal Massachusetts village of Haverhill when the poet was only 10. Published when Whittier was approaching 60, the nearly 800-line poem captures with both idealistic and sentimental nostalgia the essence of New England rural life threatened by the onrush of industrialization. Crafted in carefully metered couplets that give the poem its music when recited aloud, the poem reflects Whittier’s respect for British Neo-Classical and Romantic poetry with their emphasis on using poetry as a vehicle for philosophical inquiry. Whittier identified with the mid-19th century school of New England poets known collectively as the Fireside Poets (because their works were recited by families gathered in their parlors). They were also known as the Schoolhouse Poets because their works were memorized and recited by a generation of American schoolchildren. Whittier here uses the narrative frame of family and friends marooned in the farmhouse while the storm howls outside to investigate themes of the unstoppable movement of time, the power of nature, and the consolations of memory. Snow-Bound was Whittier’s breakthrough work. Although he lived nearly 25 years after the poem’s release, he never published a work as widely embraced as this loving evocation of a time and a place all but lost.

Poet Biography

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was born on a remote farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts, along the New Hampshire border. Raised a Quaker, Whittier embraced its doctrine of pacifism, its advocacy of human rights and social activism, and its belief in the inner light of each person that is the sacred integrity of each person’s soul. His family struggled to make the farm profitable, and Whittier, a sickly child, completed only the equivalent of high school. He was a voracious reader and began to write poems early on in the popular style of the Romantics, most notably the nature poems of William Wordsworth and the pithy wisdom verses of Robert Burns.

Incensed over the moral abomination of slavery, Whittier began publishing fiery and uncompromising diatribes that called for its end through bold legislative action. Although during the 1840s and 1850s Whittier occasionally published stories or poems that drew on Massachusetts frontier folk tales, he made his name as a prolific Abolitionist journalist and essayist, as well as a fierce advocate of women’s suffrage. He served briefly in the state legislature.

Published just after the end of the Civil War, Snow-Bound began Whittier’s second long career as a poet. Given a nation weary of four years of brutal war and not entirely ready to let go of its rural heritage, the lengthy poem with its sentimental evocation of rural life became a sensation, improbably enough selling more than 20,000 copies in its first year and earning Whittier the financial security that had long eluded him. Whittier would continue to publish self-consciously big poems that tackled large moral and ethical themes as well as verses that celebrated the emergence of a new America from the rubble of the war. He enjoyed a reputation as one of America’s most venerated philosopher-poets. Massachusetts even declared his birthday a state holiday. Nothing he published in these later years, however, rivaled the place of Snow-Bound in postbellum American culture. Whittier died at the age of 84 on September 7, 1892.

Poem Text

To the Memory of the Household It Describes

This Poem is Dedicated by the Author

“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.ch. 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 Snow Storm.

1 The sun that brief December day

2 Rose cheerless over hills of gray,

3 And, darkly circled, gave at noon

4 A sadder light than waning moon.

5 Slow tracing down the thickening sky

6 Its mute and ominous prophecy,

7 A portent seeming less than threat,

8 It sank from sight before it set.

9 A chill no coat, however stout,

10 Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,

11 A hard, dull bitterness of cold,

12 That checked, mid-vein, the circling race

13 Of life-blood in the sharpened face,

14 The coming of the snow-storm told.

15 The wind blew east; we heard the roar

16 Of Ocean on his wintry shore,

17 And felt the strong pulse throbbing there

18 Beat with low rhythm our inland air.

19 Meanwhile we did our nightly chores, –

20 Brought in the wood from out of doors,

21 Littered the stalls, and from the mows

22 Raked down the herd’s-grass for the cows;

23 Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;

24 And, sharply clashing horn on horn,

25 Impatient down the stanchion rows

26 The cattle shake their walnut bows;

27 While, peering from his early perch

28 Upon the scaffold’s pole of birch,

29 The cock his crested helmet bent

30 And down his querulous challenge sent.

31 Unwarmed by any sunset light

32 The gray day darkened into night,

33 A night made hoary with the swarm

34 And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,

35 As zigzag, wavering to and fro,

36 Crossed and recrossed the wingëd snow:

37 And ere the early bedtime came

38 The white drift piled the window-frame,

39 And through the glass the clothes-line posts

40 Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

41 So all night long the storm roared on:

42 The morning broke without a sun;

43 In tiny spherule traced with lines

44 Of Nature’s geometric signs,

45 In starry flake, and pellicle,

46 All day the hoary meteor fell;

47 And, when the second morning shone,

48 We looked upon a world unknown,

49 On nothing we could call our own.

50 Around the glistening wonder bent

51 The blue walls of the firmament,

52 No cloud above, no earth below, –

53 A universe of sky and snow!

54 The old familiar sights of ours

55 Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers

56 Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,

57 Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;

58 A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,

59 A fenceless drift what once was road;

60 The bridle-post an old man sat

61 With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;

62 The well-curb had a Chinese roof;

63 And even the long sweep, high aloof,

64 In its slant splendor, seemed to tell

65 Of Pisa’s leaning miracle.

66 A prompt, decisive man, no breath

67 Our father wasted: “Boys, a path!”

68 Well pleased, (for when did farmer boy

69 Count such a summons less than joy?)

70 Our buskins on our feet we drew;

71 With mittened hands, and caps drawn low,

72 To guard our necks and ears from snow,

73 We cut the solid whiteness through.

74 And, where the drift was deepest, made

75 A tunnel walled and overlaid

76 With dazzling crystal: we had read

77 Of rare Aladdin’s wondrous cave,

78 And to our own his name we gave,

79 With many a wish the luck were ours

80 To test his lamp’s supernal powers.

81 We reached the barn with merry din,

82 And roused the prisoned brutes within.

83 The old horse thrust his long head out,

84 And grave with wonder gazed about;

85 The cock his lusty greeting said,

86 And forth his speckled harem led;

87 The oxen lashed their tails, and hooked,

88 And mild reproach of hunger looked;

89 The hornëd patriarch of the sheep,

90 Like Egypt’s Amun roused from sleep,

91 Shook his sage head with gesture mute,

92 And emphasized with stamp of foot.

93 All day the gusty north-wind bore

94 The loosening drift its breath before;

95 Low circling round its southern zone,

96 The sun through dazzling snow-mist shone.

97 No church-bell lent its Christian tone

98 To the savage air, no social smoke

99 Curled over woods of snow-hung oak.

100 A solitude made more intense

101 By dreary-voicëd elements,

102 The shrieking of the mindless wind,

103 The moaning tree-boughs swaying blind,

104 And on the glass the unmeaning beat

105 Of ghostly finger-tips of sleet.

106 Beyond the circle of our hearth

107 No welcome sound of toil or mirth

108 Unbound the spell, and testified

109 Of human life and thought outside.

110 We minded that the sharpest ear

111 The buried brooklet could not hear,

112 The music of whose liquid lip

113 Had been to us companionship,

114 And, in our lonely life, had grown

115 To have an almost human tone.

116 As night drew on, and, from the crest

117 Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,

118 The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank

119 From sight beneath the smothering bank,

120 We piled, with care, our nightly stack

121 Of wood against the chimney-back, --

122 The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,

123 And on its top the stout back-stick;

124 The knotty forestick laid apart,

125 And filled between with curious art

126 The ragged brush; then, hovering near,

127 We watched the first red blaze appear,

128 Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam

129 On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,

130 Until the old, rude-furnished room

131 Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;

132 While radiant with a mimic flame

133 Outside the sparkling drift became,

134 And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree

135 Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.

136 The crane and pendent trammels showed,

137 The Turks’ heads on the andirons glowed;

138 While childish fancy, prompt to tell

139 The meaning of the miracle,

140 Whispered the old rhyme: “Under the tree,

141 When fire outdoors burns merrily,

142 There the witches are making tea.”

143 The moon above the eastern wood

144 Shone at its full; the hill-range stood

145 Transfigured in the silver flood,

146 Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,

147 Dead white, save where some sharp ravine

148 Took shadow, or the sombre green

149 Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black

150 Against the whiteness at their back.

151 For such a world and such a night

152 Most fitting that unwarming light,

153 Which only seemed where’er it fell

154 To make the coldness visible.

155 Shut in from all the world without,

156 We sat the clean-winged hearth about,

157 Content to let the north-wind roar

158 In baffled rage at pane and door,

159 While the red logs before us beat

160 The frost-line back with tropic heat;

161 And ever, when a louder blast

162 Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

163 The merrier up its roaring draught

164 The great throat of the chimney laughed;

165 The house-dog on his paws outspread

166 Laid to the fire his drowsy head,

167 The cat’s dark silhouette on the wall

168 A couchant tiger’s seemed to fall;

169 And, for the winter fireside meet,

170 Between the andirons’ straddling feet,

171 The mug of cider simmered slow,

172The apples sputtered in a row,

173 And, close at hand, the basket stood

174 With nuts from brown October’s wood.

175 What matter how the night behaved?

176 What matter how the north-wind raved?

177 Blow high, blow low, not all its snow

178 Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.

179 O Time and Change! – with hair as gray

180 As was my sire’s that winter day,

181 How strange it seems, with so much gone

182 Of life and love, to still live on!

183 Ah, brother! only I and thou

184 Are left of all that circle now, –

185 The dear home faces whereupon

186 That fitful firelight paled and shone.

187 Henceforward, listen as we will,

188 The voices of that hearth are still;

189 Look where we may, the wide earth o’er,

190 Those lighted faces smile no more.

191 We tread the paths their feet have worn,

192 We sit beneath their orchard trees,

193 We hear, like them, the hum of bees

194 And rustle of the bladed corn;

195 We turn the pages that they read,

196 Their written words we linger o’er,

197 But in the sun they cast no shade,

198 No voice is heard, no sign is made,

199 No step is on the conscious floor!

200 Yet Love will dream, and Faith will trust,

201 (Since He who knows our need is just,)

202 That somehow, somewhere, meet we must.

203 Alas for him who never sees

204 The stars shine through his cypress-trees!

205 Who, hopeless, lays his dead away,

206 Nor looks to see the breaking day

207 Across the mournful marbles play!

208 Who hath not learned, in hours of faith,

209 The truth to flesh and sense unknown,

210 That Life is ever lord of Death,

211 And Love can never lose its own!

212 We sped the time with stories old,

213 Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told,

214 Or stammered from our school-book lore

215 “The Chief of Gambia’s golden shore.”

216 How often since, when all the land

217 Was clay in Slavery’s shaping hand,

218 As if a far-blown trumpet stirred

219 The languorous sin-sick air, I heard:

220 “Does not the voice of reason cry,

221 Claim the first right which Nature gave,

222 From the red scourge of bondage to fly,

223 Nor deign to live a burdened slave!

224 Our father rode again his ride

225 On Memphremagog’s wooded side;

226 Sat down again to moose and samp

227 In trapper’s hut and Indian camp;

228 Lived o’er the old idyllic ease

229 Beneath St. François’ hemlock-trees;

230 Again for him the moonlight shone

231 On Norman cap and bodiced zone;

232 Again he heard the violin play

233 Which led the village dance away.

234 And mingled in its merry whirl

235 The grandam and the laughing girl.

236 Or, nearer home, our steps he led

237 Where Salisbury’s level marshes spread

238 Mile-wide as flies the laden bee;

239 Where merry mowers, hale and strong,

240 Swept, scythe on scythe, their swaths along

241  The low green prairies of the sea.

242 We shared the fishing off Boar’s Head,

243 And round the rocky Isles of Shoals

244 The hake-broil on the drift-wood coals;

245 The chowder on the sand-beach made,

246 Dipped by the hungry, steaming hot,

247 With spoons of clam-shell from the pot.

248 We heard the tales of witchcraft old,

249 And dream and sign and marvel told

250 To sleepy listeners as they lay

251 Stretched idly on the salted hay,

252 Adrift along the winding shores,

253 When favoring breezes deigned to blow

254 The square sail of the gundelow

255And idle lay the useless oars.

256 Our mother, while she turned her wheel

257 Or run the new-knit stocking-heel,

258 Told how the Indian hordes came down

259 At midnight on Concheco town,

260 And how her own great-uncle bore

261 His cruel scalp-mark to fourscore.

262 Recalling, in her fitting phrase,

263 So rich and picturesque and free

264 (The common unrhymed poetry

265 Of simple life and country ways,)

266 The story of her early days, –

267 She made us welcome to her home;

268 Old hearths grew wide to give us room;

269 We stole with her a frightened look

270 At the gray wizard’s conjuring-book,

271 The fame whereof went far and wide

272 Through all the simple country side;

273 We heard the hawks at twilight play,

274 The boat-horn on Piscataqua,

275 The loon’s weird laughter far away;

276 We fished her little trout-brook, knew

277 What flowers in wood and meadow grew,

278 What sunny hillsides autumn-brown

279 She climbed to shake the ripe nuts down,

280 Saw where in sheltered cove and bay,

281 The ducks’ black squadron anchored lay,

282 And heard the wild-geese calling loud

283 Beneath the gray November cloud.

284 Then, haply, with a look more grave,

285 And soberer tone, some tale she gave

286 From painful Sewel’s ancient tome,

287 Beloved in every Quaker home,

288 Of faith fire-winged by martyrdom,

289 Or Chalkley’s Journal, old and quaint, –

290 Gentlest of skippers, rare sea-saint! –

291 Who, when the dreary calms prevailed,

292 And water-butt and bread-cask failed,

293 And cruel, hungry eyes pursued

294 His portly presence mad for food,

295 With dark hints muttered under breath

296 Of casting lots for life or death,

297 Offered, if Heaven withheld supplies,

298 To be himself the sacrifice.

299 Then, suddenly, as if to save

300 The good man from his living grave,

301 A ripple on the water grew,

302 A school of porpoise flashed in view.

303 “Take, eat,” he said, “and be content;

304 These fishes in my stead are sent

305 By Him who gave the tangled ram

306 To spare the child of Abraham.”

307 Our uncle, innocent of books,

308 Was rich in lore of fields and brooks,

309 The ancient teachers never dumb

310 Of Nature’s unhoused lyceum.

311 In moons and tides and weather wise,

312 He read the clouds as prophecies,

313 And foul or fair could well divine,

314 By many an occult hint and sign,

315 Holding the cunning-warded keys

316 To all the woodcraft mysteries;

317 Himself to Nature’s heart so near

318 That all her voices in his ear

319 Of beast or bird had meanings clear,

320 Like Apollonius of old,

321 Who knew the tales the sparrows told,

322 Or Hermes, who interpreted

323 What the sage cranes of Nilus said;

324 A simple, guileless, childlike man,

325 Content to live where life began;

326 Strong only on his native grounds,

327 The little world of sights and sounds

328 Whose girdle was the parish bounds,

329 Whereof his fondly partial pride

330 The common features magnified,

331 As Surrey hills to mountains grew

332 In White of Selborne’s loving view, –

333 He told how teal and loon he shot,

334 And how the eagle’s eggs he got,

335 The feats on pond and river done,

336 The prodigies of rod and gun;

337 Till, warming with the tales he told,

338 Forgotten was the outside cold,

339 The bitter wind unheeded blew,

340 From ripening corn the pigeons flew,

341 The partridge drummed i’ the wood, the mink

342 Went fishing down the river-brink.

343 In fields with bean or clover gray,

344 The woodchuck, like a hermit gray,

345 Peered from the doorway of his cell;

346 The muskrat plied the mason’s trade,

347 And tier by tier his mud-walls laid;

348 And from the shagbark overhead

349 The grizzled squirrel dropped his shell.

350 Next, the dear aunt, whose smile of cheer

351 And voice in dreams I see and hear, –

352 The sweetest woman ever Fate

353 Perverse denied a household mate,

354 Who, lonely, homeless, not the less

355 Found peace in love’s unselfishness,

356 And welcome wheresoe’er she went,

357 A calm and gracious element,

358 Whose presence seemed the sweet income

359 And womanly atmosphere of home, –

360 Called up her girlhood memories,

361 The huskings and the apple-bees,

362 The sleigh-rides and the summer sails,

363 Weaving through all the poor details

364 And homespun warp of circumstance

365 A golden woof-thread of romance.

366 For well she kept her genial mood

367 And simple faith of maidenhood;

368 Before her still a cloud-land lay,

369 The mirage loomed across her way;

370 The morning dew, that dries so soon

371 With others, glistened at her noon;

372 Through years of toil and soil and care,

373 From glossy tress to thin gray hair,

374 All unprofaned she held apart

375 The virgin fancies of the heart.

376 Be shame to him of woman born

377 Who hath for such but thought of scorn.

378 There, too, our elder sister plied

379 Her evening task the stand beside;

380 A full, rich nature, free to trust,

381 Truthful and almost sternly just,

382 Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act,

383 And make her generous thought a fact,

384 Keeping with many a light disguise

385 The secret of self-sacrifice.

386 O heart sore-tried! thou hast the best

387 That Heaven itself could give thee, – rest,

388 Rest from all bitter thoughts and things!

389 How many a poor one’s blessing went

390 With thee beneath the low green tent

391 Whose curtain never outward swings!

392 As one who held herself a part

393 Of all she saw, and let her heart

394 Against the household bosom lean,

395 Upon the motley-braided mat

396 Our youngest and our dearest sat,

397 Lifting her large, sweet, asking eyes,

398 Now bathed in the unfading green

399 And holy peace of Paradise.

400 Oh, looking from some heavenly hill,

401  Or from the shade of saintly palms,

402 Or silver reach of river calms,

403 Do those large eyes behold me still?

404 With me one little year ago: –

405 The chill weight of the winter snow

406 For months upon her grave has lain;

407 And now, when summer south-winds blow

408 And brier and harebell bloom again,

409 I tread the pleasant paths we trod,

410 I see the violet-sprinkled sod

411 Whereon she leaned, too frail and weak

412 The hillside flowers she loved to seek,

413 Yet following me where’er I went

414 With dark eyes full of love’s content.

415 The birds are glad; the brier-rose fills

416The air with sweetness; all the hills

417 Stretch green to June’s unclouded sky;

418 But still I wait with ear and eye

419 For something gone which should be nigh,

420 A loss in all familiar things,

421 In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.

422 And yet, dear heart! remembering thee,

423 Am I not richer than of old?

424 Safe in thy immortality,

425 What change can reach the wealth I hold?

426 What chance can mar the pearl and gold

427 Thy love hath left in trust with me?

428 And while in life’s late afternoon,

429 Where cool and long the shadows grow,

430 I walk to meet the night that soon

431 Shall shape and shadow overflow,

432 I cannot feel that thou art far,

433 Since near at need the angels are;

434 And when the sunset gates unbar,

435 Shall I not see thee waiting stand,

436 And, white against the evening star,

437 The welcome of thy beckoning hand?

438 Brisk wielder of the birch and rule,

439 The master of the district school

440 Held at the fire his favored place,

441 Its warm glow lit a laughing face

442 Fresh-hued and fair, where scarce appeared

443 The uncertain prophecy of beard.

444 He teased the mitten-blinded cat,

445 Played cross-pins on my uncle’s hat,

446 Sang songs, and told us what befalls

447 In classic Dartmouth’s college halls.

448 Born the wild Northern hills among,

449 From whence his yeoman father wrung

450 By patient toil subsistence scant,

451 Not competence and yet not want,

452 He early gained the power to pay

453 His cheerful, self-reliant way;

454 Could doff at ease his scholar’s gown

455 To peddle wares from town to town;

456 Or through the long vacation’s reach

457 In lonely lowland districts teach,

458 Where all the droll experience found

459 At stranger hearths in boarding round,

460 The moonlit skater’s keen delight,

461 The sleigh-drive through the frosty night,

462 The rustic party, with its rough

463 Accompaniment of blind-man’s-buff,

464 And whirling-plate, and forfeits paid,

465 His winter task a pastime made.

466 Happy the snow-locked homes wherein

467 He tuned his merry violin,

468 Or played the athlete in the barn,

469 Or held the good dame’s winding-yarn,

470 Or mirth-provoking versions told

471 Of classic legends rare and old,

472 Wherein the scenes of Greece and Rome

473 Had all the commonplace of home,

474 And little seemed at best the odds

475 ‘Twixt Yankee pedlers and old gods;

476 Where Pindus-born Arachthus took

477 The guise of any grist-mill brook,

478 And dread Olympus at his will

479 Became a huckleberry hill.

480 A careless boy that night he seemed;

481 But at his desk he had the look

482 And air of one who wisely schemed,

483 And hostage from the future took

484 In trainëd thought and lore of book.

485 Large-brained, clear-eyed, of such as he

486 Shall Freedom’s young apostles be,

487 Who, following in War’s bloody trail,

488 Shall every lingering wrong assail;

489 All chains from limb and spirit strike,

490 Uplift the black and white alike;

491 Scatter before their swift advance

492 The darkness and the ignorance,

493 The pride, the lust, the squalid sloth,

494 Which nurtured Treason’s monstrous growth,

495 Made murder pastime, and the hell

496 Of prison-torture possible;

497 The cruel lie of caste refute,

498 Old forms remould, and substitute

499 For Slavery’s lash the freeman’s will,

500 For blind routine, wise-handed skill;

501 A school-house plant on every hill,

502 Stretching in radiate nerve-lines thence

503 The quick wires of intelligence;

504 Till North and South together brought

505 Shall own the same electric thought,

506 In peace a common flag salute,

507 And, side by side in labor’s free

508 And unresentful rivalry,

509 Harvest the fields wherein they fought.

510 Another guest that winter night

511 Flashed back from lustrous eyes the light.

512 Unmarked by time, and yet not young,

513 The honeyed music of her tongue

514 And words of meekness scarcely told

515 A nature passionate and bold,

516 Strong, self-concentred, spurning guide,

517 Its milder features dwarfed beside

518 Her unbent will’s majestic pride.

519 She sat among us, at the best,

520 A not unfeared, half-welcome guest,

521 Rebuking with her cultured phrase

522 Our homeliness of words and ways.

523 A certain pard-like, treacherous grace

524 Swayed the lithe limbs and drooped the lash,

525 Lent the white teeth their dazzling flash;

526 And under low brows, black with night,

527 Rayed out at times a dangerous light;

528 The sharp heat-lightnings of her face

529 Presaging ill to him whom Fate

530 Condemned to share her love or hate.

531 A woman tropical, intense

532 In thought and act, in soul and sense,

533 She blended in a like degree

534 The vixen and the devotee,

535 Revealing with each freak or feint

536 The temper of Petruchio’s Kate,

537 The raptures of Siena’s saint.

538 Her tapering hand and rounded wrist

539 Had facile power to form a fist;

540 The warm, dark languish of her eyes

541 Was never safe from wrath’s surprise.

542 Brows saintly calm and lips devout

543 Knew every change of scowl and pout;

544 And the sweet voice had notes more high

545 And shrill for social battle-cry.

546 Since then what old cathedral town

547 Has missed her pilgrim staff and gown,

548 What convent-gate has held its lock

549 Against the challenge of her knock!

550 Through Smyrna’s plague-hushed thoroughfares,

551 Up sea-set Malta’s rocky stairs,

552 Gray olive slopes of hills that hem

553 Thy tombs and shrines, Jerusalem,

554 Or startling on her desert throne

555 The crazy Queen of Lebanon

556 With claims fantastic as her own,

557 Her tireless feet have held their way;

558 And still, unrestful, bowed, and gray,

559 She watches under Eastern skies,

560 With hope each day renewed and fresh,

561 The Lord’s quick coming in the flesh,

562 Whereof she dreams and prophesies!

563 Where’er her troubled path may be,

564 The Lord’s sweet pity with her go!

565 The outward wayward life we see,

566 The hidden springs we may not know.

567 Nor is it given us to discern

568 What threads the fatal sisters spun,

569 Through what ancestral years has run

570 The sorrow with the woman born,

571 What forged her cruel chain of moods,

572 What set her feet in solitudes,

573 And held the love within her mute,

574 What mingled madness in the blood,

575 A life-long discord and annoy,

576 Water of tears with oil of joy,

577 And hid within the folded bud

578 Perversities of flower and fruit.

579 It is not ours to separate

580 The tangled skein of will and fate,

581 To show what metes and bounds should stand

582 Upon the soul’s debatable land,

583 And between choice and Providence

584 Divide the circle of events;

585 But He who knows our frame is just,

586 Merciful and compassionate,

587 And full of sweet assurances

588 And hope for all the language is,

589 That He remembereth we are dust!

590 At last the great logs, crumbling low,

591 Sent out a dull and duller glow,

592 The bull’s-eye watch that hung in view,

593 Ticking its weary circuit through,

594 Pointed with mutely warning sign

595 Its black hand to the hour of nine.

596 That sign the pleasant circle broke:

597 My uncle ceased his pipe to smoke,

598 Knocked from its bowl the refuse gray,

599 And laid it tenderly away;

600 Then roused himself to safely cover

601 The dull red brands with ashes over.

602 And while, with care, our mother laid

603 The work aside, her steps she stayed

604 One moment, seeking to express

605 Her grateful sense of happiness

606 For food and shelter, warmth and health,

607 And love’s contentment more than wealth,

608 With simple wishes (not the weak,

609 Vain prayers which no fulfilment seek,

610 But such as warm the generous heart,

611 O’er-prompt to do with Heaven its part)

612 That none might lack, that bitter night,

613 For bread and clothing, warmth and light.

614 Within our beds awhile we heard

615 The wind that round the gables roared,

616 With now and then a ruder shock,

617 Which made our very bedsteads rock.

618 We heard the loosened clapboards tost,

619 The board-nails snapping in the frost;

620 And on us, through the unplastered wall,

621 Felt the light sifted snow-flakes fall.

622 But sleep stole on, as sleep will do

623 When hearts are light and life is new;

624 Faint and more faint the murmurs grew,

625 Till in the summer-land of dreams

626 They softened to the sound of streams,

627 Low stir of leaves, and dip of oars,

628 And lapsing waves on quiet shores.

629 Next morn we wakened with the shout

630 Of merry voices high and clear;

631 And saw the teamsters drawing near

632 To break the drifted highways out.

633 Down the long hillside treading slow

634 We saw the half-buried oxen go,

635 Shaking the snow from heads uptost,

636 Their straining nostrils white with frost.

637 Before our door the straggling train

638 Drew up, an added team to gain.

639 The elders threshed their hands a-cold,

640 Passed, with the cider-mug, their jokes

641 From lip to lip; the younger folks

642 Down the loose snow-banks, wrestling, rolled,

643 Then toiled again the cavalcade

644 O’er windy hill, through clogged ravine,

645 And woodland paths that wound between

646 Low drooping pine-boughs winter-weighed.

647 From every barn a team afoot,

648 At every house a new recruit,

649 Where, drawn by Nature’s subtlest law,

650 Haply the watchful young men saw

651 Sweet doorway pictures of the curls

652 And curious eyes of merry girls,

653 Lifting their hands in mock defence

654 Against the snow-ball’s compliments,

655 And reading in each missive tost

656 The charm with Eden never lost.

657 We heard once more the sleigh-bells’ sound;

658 And, following where the teamsters led,

659 The wise old Doctor went his round,

660 Just pausing at our door to say,

661 In the brief autocratic way

662 Of one who, prompt at Duty’s call,

663 Was free to urge her claim on all,

664 That some poor neighbor sick abed

665 At night our mother’s aid would need.

666 For, one in generous thought and deed,

667 What mattered in the sufferer’s sight

668 The Quaker matron’s inward light,

669 The Doctor’s mail of Calvin’s creed?

670 All hearts confess the saints elect

671 Who, twain in faith, in love agree,

672 And melt not in an acid sect

673 The Christian pearl of charity!

674 So days went on: a week had passed

675 Since the great world was heard from last.

676 The Almanac we studied o’er,

677 Read and reread our little store

678 Of books and pamphlets, scarce a score;

679 One harmless novel, mostly hid

680 From younger eyes, a book forbid,

681 And poetry, (or good or bad,

682 A single book was all we had,)

683 Where Ellwood’s meek, drab-skirted Muse,

684 A stranger to the heathen Nine,

685 Sang, with a somewhat nasal whine,

686 The wars of David and the Jews.

687 At last the floundering carrier bore

688 The village paper to our door.

689 Lo! broadening outward as we read,

690 To warmer zones the horizon spread

691 In panoramic length unrolled

692 We saw the marvels that it told.

693 Before us passed the painted Creeks,

694 And daft McGregor on his raids

695 In Costa Rica’s everglades.

696 And up Taygetos winding slow

697 Rode Ypsilanti’s Mainote Greeks,

698 A Turk’s head at each saddle-bow!

699 Welcome to us its week-old news,

700 Its corner for the rustic Muse,

701  Its monthly gauge of snow and rain,

702 Its record, mingling in a breath

703 The wedding bell and dirge of death:

704 Jest, anecdote, and love-lorn tale,

705 The latest culprit sent to jail;

706 Its hue and cry of stolen and lost,

707 Its vendue sales and goods at cost,

708 And traffic calling loud for gain.

709 We felt the stir of hall and street,

710 The pulse of life that round us beat;

711 The chill embargo of the snow

712 Was melted in the genial glow;

713 Wide swung again our ice-locked door,

714 And all the world was ours once more!

715 Clasp, Angel of the backword look

716 And folded wings of ashen gray

717 And voice of echoes far away,

718 The brazen covers of thy book;

719 The weird palimpsest old and vast,

720 Wherein thou hid’st the spectral past;

721 Where, closely mingling, pale and glow

722 The characters of joy and woe;

723 The monographs of outlived years,

724 Or smile-illumed or dim with tears,

725 Green hills of life that slope to death,

726 And haunts of home, whose vistaed trees

727 Shade off to mournful cypresses

728 With the white amaranths underneath.

729 Even while I look, I can but heed

730 The restless sands’ incessant fall,

731 Importunate hours that hours succeed,

732 Each clamorous with its own sharp need,

733 And duty keeping pace with all.

734 Shut down and clasp with heavy lids;

735 I hear again the voice that bids

736 The dreamer leave his dream midway

737 For larger hopes and graver fears:

738 Life greatens in these later years,

739 The century’s aloe flowers to-day!

740 Yet, haply, in some lull of life,

741 Some Truce of God which breaks its strife,

742 The worldling’s eyes shall gather dew,

743 Dreaming in throngful city ways

744 Of winter joys his boyhood knew;

745 And dear and early friends – the few

746 Who yet remain – shall pause to view

747 These Flemish pictures of old days;

748 Sit with me by the homestead hearth,

749 And stretch the hands of memory forth

750 To warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze!

751 And thanks untraced to lips unknown

752 Shall greet me like the odors blown

753 From unseen meadows newly mown,

754 Or lilies floating in some pond,

755 Wood-fringed, the wayside gaze beyond;

756 The traveller owns the grateful sense

757 Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,

758 And, pausing, takes with forehead bare

759 The benediction of the air.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl.” 1866. Poetry Foundation.


Snow-Bound is told by an unnamed narrator, presumably Whittier, in 28 unnumbered stanzas of varying lengths. The poet at the time is six years old.

Stanzas 1-4 set the scene for the approaching winter storm. It is a December afternoon on a farm in rural northern Massachusetts. The speaker acknowledges the sudden drop in temperature, the harsh wind gusts, and the gathering clouds pregnant with snow. Even the farm animals are skittish. As night descends, the snow begins. By morning, the new snow drifts up to the windows. The storm continues for an entire day. By the next morning, when the storm finally passes, the farm is buried.

In Stanzas 5-9, the family begins to dig out. The narrator and his brother tunnel through the drifts to the barn to tend the animals. They make a game of it, pretending they are in the caves of Aladdin. The day otherwise unfolds quietly, the silence broken only by the steady wind. As night falls, the boys gather firewood to last the long, cold night. The farmhouse settles into a freezing moonlit night, while the fireplace roars to life inside the farmhouse. Everyone in the home, the family and two boarders, gathers around its inviting warmth to enjoy warmed cider and baked apples.

In Stanza 10, the narrator breaks in to offer a perspective from the present, many years after the snow storm. The narrator ruminates on time and how events become memories that are, despite the passing of time, still vivid, still clear. He notes ruefully that only he and his brother are now alive among those who, snow bound, gathered by the hearth. He acknowledges how the country has survived a brutal civil war that ended the scourge of slavery before he returns to his narrative of the blizzard, recalling how his father regaled the company with lively stories of his childhood spent fishing and hunting the unsettled New England frontier.

Stanzas 11-23 chronicle the stories that the members of the family and their friends shared that night long ago. First the mother, as she knits furiously, tells riveting tales of the first-generation settlers and their confrontations with Native Americans. She shares parables from Quaker wisdom literature and even reads aloud a harrowing account of sailors, their ship stuck in the doldrums, slowly starving to death at sea until they are rescued—improbably enough—by a herd of porpoises. The narrator’s uncle speaks next, extolling his fascination with the untrammeled wilderness teeming with the birds and animals he loves to hunt. The narrator’s spinster aunt then shares stories of her childhood. It is with some sadness that the narrator in the narrative present, in Stanzas 15 and 16, recalls how his two sisters, one older and one younger, were also among those gathered around the fire and that both are now dead, the younger sister only in the last several months. In moments when he most misses her, her “dark eyes full of love’s content” (414), he heads out into nature and there feels powerful communion with his sister’s spirit. Her generosity, her kindness, her compassion, he is sure, still animate the universe, and he is certain they will be reunited when he dies.

Stanzas 17-23 introduce the two boarders, one a schoolteacher, the other an eccentric, itinerant preacher. The schoolteacher shares stories of his childhood growing up on a farm. Although the narrator admits the teacher inspired his students by his passion for education and his insistence that the boys in his charge understand the widest implications of current events and the moral need to end the evils of slavery, the teacher also had a silly, even frivolous side, enjoying singing old college songs from his days at Dartmouth, dancing in strange rhythms, ice skating with grace and intensity, and even playing with the family’s cat. The preacher is a different story. She is formidable and serious. She insists on introducing her apocalyptic take on current events into the fireside conversations. The narrator recalls the fierce impression the woman made on him even as a child, her uncompromising vision born of her religious conviction. He now compares her to the outspoken Kate with her biting wit and sharp tongue in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and to the Medieval Catholic mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). As night descends, the fire ebbs, and each person heads off to bed. They each enjoy a calm and undisturbed sleep. The narrator notes that despite the brutal storm that lingered outside, the family and their friends were safe, well-fed, and warm.

In Stanzas 24-26, the next morning, the residents dig out from the storm, and the outside world slowly reenters their awareness. Teams of oxen plow the roads clear. The children play war with snowballs. The village doctor makes his rounds along the treacherous roads. In a gesture of neighborly love, the narrator’s mother offers to accompany the doctor. A week passes. The arrival at last of the town newspaper reintroduces the real-time world that had seemed to blur off into irrelevancy during the storm. It is a world fractured by wars and violent revolutions. In addition, local news recounts stories of a wedding as well as the usual police reports and obituaries. It is time to return to the world.

In the closing two stanzas, the narrator extols the power of memory itself, the spell of the look backward, and how, under the enchanting energy of reverie, the past can be recreated vividly until it seems to be real, or at least real enough. He acknowledges there comes a time when the dreamer must leave the dream. He nevertheless celebrates the joy that memories bring, comparing the happy interlude he has spent remembering that winter storm to the aesthetic joy a person feels taking in the gorgeously detailed winter landscapes painted by the Dutch masters of the 1600s.

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By John Greenleaf Whittier