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When a friend recently asked for winter poem recommendations, Wallace Stevens’s “Snow Man” was the first that came to mind: “One must have a mind of winter / to regard the frost and the boughs / of the pine trees crusted with snow…” The next was Robert Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and the third was T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” which begins, “A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of year . . . The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter.”
What is it about snow that moves us? Snow is a perennial, multipurpose literary symbol suggesting many things. One is forgetfulness; in The Waste Land Eliot writes, “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / a little life with dried tubers.” Another is purity, as in Isaiah 1: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Another is isolation, as in Disney’s Frozen (and its Hans Christian Andersen source story).
Winter as a larger concept is generally negative, as seen in Shakespeare’s famous line, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (from King Richard III). He deals with it tangentially in the sonnet that begins, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs.” These uses suggest inability, gracelessness, age, and death.
For contemporary poets like Howard Nemerov and Frederick Seidel, precipitation generally invokes transience. This rain shower or snowfall is here in force, but soon it will be gone again, and such is life. Seidel’s recently published four-line poem “Snow” illustrates this notion:
Snow is what it does.
It falls and it stays and it goes.
It melts and it is here somewhere.
We all will get there.
Snow relates to politics in a different way. Not so meditative and brooding, it is present, active, and presents real challenges for government, as a recent article in National Journal indicates. Those in charge fear snow and ice. As an opinion piece a few years ago explained, in Washington, DC, “snow is rightfully a four-letter word.” When used as a political metaphor, snow implies baffling, fooling; “snow job” means cover-up.
So the blizzard, while it neutralizes urban grime and hushes the passage of trucks and cars, also implies falseness. It embodies discontentedness, and in fact is the reason millions of people travel south in the winter. Snow is something beautiful, the effects of which we prefer to avoid or escape. Its meaning is twofold—lovely danger, glittering death trap. As such it is the perfect symbol of the human problem in its largest sense. “Do not look at wine when it is red,” writes Solomon in Proverbs 23; “when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.” In the end, he warns, it will take your life.
Perhaps the most haunting expression of snow’s beauty/terror connection is in Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire.” As the unnamed protagonist sets out on a Yukon hike, he admires the snow-covered scene: “It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed.” He faces his journey like a good American, jaw set, ready to do whatever’s necessary to get from point A to point B. His problem, which leads to his eventual demise, is that “he was without imagination.” Although he sets out in a manner reminiscent of Thoreau’s “Winter Walk,” he faces the sub-fifty-degree temperature too analytically and without necessary fear.
Snow, whether we sled and make angels in it, associate it with spiritual cleansing, face down the logistical nightmare it can create, or recognize its existential foreboding, is indeed one of our premier symbols. Like nighttime or the ocean, it contains both beauty and power, so understanding it calls for both realism and imagination.
- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His third collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, is due out from Persea in February. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.