Friday, September 25, 2009

The grateful sense of sweetness near - a bit of "Snow-Bound"

"Snow-Bound" (1866) was, one might suspect, actually designed as a unique form of torment for high school students. Twenty pages of rhymed couplets describing a snowed-in week of the poet's childhood, "These Flemish pictures of old days," mixed with reflections on loss and the passage of time and the road not taken and so on. Which contemporary writer was it who described growing up in Whittier's Haverhill, MA, and being forced to memorize parts of "Snow-Bound" on the finest May afternoon of the year? It's all perfectly crafted to bore a poor high school kid to death.

Well, that's all before my time. The Fireside Poets were all pretty much gone from my high school curriculum. Maybe a little Longfellow remained. So I have the freedom to actually enjoy "Snow-Bound," a nostalgic childhood poem that is also a complex investigation of nostalgia. It's also masterfully structured, and has some superb lines. It's the John Greenleaf Whittier paradox - if he was capable of this, why did he do it so seldom?

The beginning of the poem is cleanly nostalgic. A storm approaches; the farm hunkers down; the storm hits; the farm digs out a bit, enough to feed the animals. In the evening, the family entertains itself around the fire. There are a lot of nice touches ("And through the glass the clothes-line posts \ Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts"), but a reader might wonder if there's more to the poem than nostalgic remembrance.

There is, there is. The fireside entertainment is storytelling. Whittier deftly switches from his parents' stories of their own childhood to descriptions of the other inhabitants of the house - his uncle the amateur naturalist, his maiden aunt, his sisters, the schoolmaster, and one really odd one, a guest, Harriet Livermore, a religious enthusiast who later traveled the world and lived for a time with the Queen of the Desert, Lady Hester Stanhope. But that's a whole 'nother story. "Or startling on her desert throne \ The crazy Queen of Lebanon \ With claims fantastic as her own."

That sympathetic portrait of the strict, dedicated schoolmaster - just one more turn of the screw for those poor high school students. "Brisk wielder of the birch and rule," wonderful. But it's these people who make the poem great, and cuts the cloyingness of the nostalgia. Their loss is real. It should be mourned, they should be remembered. Well, I want to think about this more. It's a complicated poem.

The poetic language is unusually good. For Whittier, I mean. The last line, for example:

The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.

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