Poem of the week: The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo EmersonThis time, an American Romantic who deserves to be much better-known
This week's poem, "The Snow-Storm" by the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, aspires not only to rugged grandeur but to irony. Emerson knew the English Romantic poets, and I think quite possibly "The Snow-Storm" is a response to Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". "Tumultuous privacy of storm" and "the frolic architecture of the snow" carry an almost parodic echo of Coleridge's "secret ministry of frost."
Emerson's poem, for all the sturdy authority of its blank verse, relishes the snow-storm's gothic abandon, its subversive, "savage" disregard for "number or proportion". Nineteenth-century American poets were determined to create a body of literature distinct from that of Europe, and there's a suggestion that the primitive snow-storm could invent shapes at least as interesting as the "slow structures" of deliberate artistry. Conversely, the human architect might, in terms of geological time, amount to no more than a snow-flurry.
The first stanza is stately, smooth-flowing and picturesque, the faintly Biblical touches reminding us that, before rebelling against organised religion, Emerson had been a minister. The snow has an apocalyptic quality in that it blurs the usual life-or-death distinctions. Movement is halted. Boundaries are blotted out – even the boundary between earth and heaven. The scene then shifts to a friendlier indoors, where that unexpected word "radiance" emphasises the vivid contrast with the lightless landscape. Again, a scriptural note is struck, and the old-fashioned fire, or glowing stove, seems to burn with an almost sacred incandescence.
And then, it's as if, in the white space between stanzas, the speaker had ventured outside. The shortened opening line of the second stanza increases the dramatic effect, the immediacy, of the summons, "Come see …" And the subsequent description convinces us there is something worth seeing.
The "fierce artificer", the snow-storm, has carried out an entire building-project, from the quarrying of the tiles to the decorative marble drapes of the "Parian wreaths". It's only when he comes to the end of this extended conceit that Emerson seems to struggle. "Retiring" must be the subject of "leaves" but it's hardly obvious. The qualification, "as he were not", is confusing, to say the least. Clearly, the poet is still talking about the snow-storm. Perhaps he wants to convey that winter is far from over, and the snow's retirement merely apparent, and temporary.
But I still like the poem, and have no objection to a little puzzlement. Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance is partially carried over into his poetic technique. His diction here is mainly down-to-earth, with a dash of medieval ("steed", "maugre"). The syntax, like his treatment of conventional forms and meters, dimly aspires to a more organic shape, although he stops short of real innovation. He recognised it when he saw it, though, and when Walt Whitman sent him a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote back an exalted fan-letter: "I give you joy of your free and brave thought …"
Emerson and Thoreau, though important thinkers and writers, were not great poets, but it's a pity that their work is not better known in Britain. They have as much claim as the Romantics to be the ancestors of today's eco-poets and nature writers. The current obsession with rivers, rain and water among British poets, for instance, surely has a source in Emersonian metaphor.
And it's not only the poets who echo the Transcendentalists. For many people, the natural world has become the focus of morality. We sense our obligation to nature also in terms of an obligation to ourselves to become more "natural". Emerson was prophetic when he said, "Civilised man has invented the coach, but lost the use of his feet" and, less cheerily, "The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation."
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 farmhouse at the garden's end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.