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Snowbound

This is a good a time to take a look at the wonderfully descriptive opening lines of “Snowbound” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  (We do this every winter.) Here they are.

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.

"Snowbound"Yes, it’s only simple couplets. And each line has only four beats, which means it isn’t like virtually all the great poems in English. Instead, it uses the rhymes  and rhythms of children’s verse.  Here’s a poet who has fallen far from the high esteem and great popularity he once enjoyed. No one reads Whittier’s poems now. But “Snowbound” was an astonishing success. It blessed the author with more money than he had ever had, giving him the ability to provide his beloved niece with a suitable education and allowing him to expand his old house and to live the rest of his life without financial worries.

The long poem — and it’s very long — was first published in book form in February of 1866, became an amazing success, sold out the first printing by spring and by summer 20,000 copies were gone. It continued to be read and enjoyed for about fifty years, its jingling couplets easy to remember. The opening stanzas give us a wonderfully accurate and detailed picture of the snowstorm, the excitement as it whips around the house for two days, the changted landscape afterward, and the pleasant work of digging out.  Whittier dedicated the poem  To the Memory of the Household It Describes, the  household he remembered from his rural childhood. That rural lifestyle, so lovingly described in the poem, was rapidly disappearing and certainly one of the reasons the poem was so popular was that it brought to life a lost time that many readers fondly remembered. The people described in the poem were drawn from people Whittier knew and many of them, like the life described, had passed beyond recall.

“Snowbound” is far to long to quote here, but if you’d like to take a look at the entire poem there are other pages on the Web which have it whole.   Now take a look at those opening lines again. Recite them once and you’ll discover how easy they are to memorize. Commit them to memory and you’ll have them forever, even if you don’t have your computer, your i-pad or your phone with you.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.