Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Snowstorm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Given the near-blizzard conditions outside - lovely large flakes blowing nearly sideways, piling atop fenceposts and blowing the birds about as they try to light on the feeder - I thought this poem was pretty much perfect for today.

The Snowstorm
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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 hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse 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.
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 famer'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 structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

*Parian: denoting or relating to a fine white marble mined in classical times in Paros
**maugre: in spite of

Emerson's poem is written in blank verse, which is to say, in unrhymed iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), except for a single line written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line): "Come see the north wind's masonry."

That line is the turning point in the poem, which opens with an evocative but quick overview of the storm and its effect on people. After Emerson's invitation to "see the north wind's masonry," however, he moves to a personification of the storm and enters into an extended metaphor (known as a "conceit"), in which the north wind (representing the storm) is compared to a mason (and perhaps to a sculptor as well), who spends his night constructing structures of snow.

The use of sensory details is terrific in this poem, from the opening use of sound - it's quite the Stürm und Drang beginning, isn't it, with "all the trumpets of the sky" and the frenzy of the snow's arrival? And the central conceit - "the north wind's masonry" - produces some phrases that are entirely swoon-worthy: "his wild work/so fanciful, so savage, nought cares he/for number or proportion"; he "leaves . . . astonished Art to mimic in slow structures . . . the mad wind's night-work,/the frolic architecture of the snow."

I hope those of you in the snowy places of the world are safe and warm inside. I'm off to enjoy a cup of tea. And to watch the birds on the feeder - so many of them at a time, and such an interesting assortment. Usually they would not all tolerate one another so well, but on a day like today when they need the calories, they seem inclined to allow more company than usual (12 on the one feeder at last count - and it's not what one would call an overly large feeder).

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britt0806 said...

This did not help!!!!

Kelly Fineman said...

Dear britt0806:

I am sorry to hear that. If you had an actual question, I would do my best to answer you.

Anonymous said...

can you show me the pattern of iambic pentameter with the syllabics separating the stresses of each

Kelly Fineman said...

I won't do the entire poem, but here's the first two lines:

aNNOUNCED by ALL the TRUMpets OF the SKY
aRRIVES the SNOW and DRIving O'ER the FIELDS

I'm afraid that due to formatting constraints, I couldn't use the standard notation of ˘ / for the feet, so assume that lowercase syllables are unstressed (˘) and uppercase are stressed (/).

Anonymous said...

The last sentence:

"And when his hours are numbered, and the world / Is all his own, retiring, as he were not, /

It has triple-implications: * "his hours are numbered" applies both to this night and his life.
* "Is all his own" = when the snow stops and he is alone to see what it has built,
--and perhaps, if you read it word-for-word, hesitating here, it may make you think of the very last moment of his life when he is about to lose his world.

* "retiring" = leaving, with overtones of leaving for ever, death.

* "as he were not" = "were" is subjunctive. A crude paraphrase of it could be "as IF he were not."
e.g.: Oh, he won't die tonight--or he won't sleep tonight--or he will sleep tonight, but not die tonight. You choose the overtones. The phrase points to the limited life of man, and does so with gentle humor.

And then the day comes, frolicking, and he's both there (it's his morning, after all) and not there. The complex sentence contains all that's left: The [snow]world ... leaves .. astonished Art, and the frolic of architecture. Note the capital on Art. The farmer doesn't get a capital, he simply says "Maugre." Some readers interpret this as a variant of the Hindu god of the future, Maitreya. Maybe this is useful--it certainly could apply. But what kind of a farmer have we here to know that word?

Emerson uses that word elsewhere to mean what it more commonly meant at the time: it expresses ill will. It's from Old French malgre. Emerson uses it in Nature: Addresses & Lectures: 1849. You can look that up online. We might translate it simply as "yuck!"

I've no evidence, but I've always thought this poem may well have influenced Frost's "Stopping By The Woods..."