Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two Snow Poems

Snow is falling this morning. Not from the skies but from the trees. From my window I can see five black crows in the snow-covered ivy on my neighbor’s tree. Their fluttering knocks the snow down in clumps. Crows are loud and alarming against the peace of snow.

As the sun rose, it cast a pink light on the low clouds making the snow-covered trees a brighter contrast of dark, wet bark with the pure white snow. As the rosy sun climbs now in the sky, the snow loses its’ grip—even without crows to help—and chuffs off the tree branches.

I am reminded of two poems by Robert Frost:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

This poem is well-known and the images suggest that the speaker is awakening from a bad mood—maybe even from despair. Crows are associated with death. Hemlock is also as it is what was used to kill Socrates. So the fact that the crow shakes snow onto the person from a hemlock tree symbolically means that the crow is reminding him that death is possible. It's out there.

The speaker responds surprisingly. He had already been unhappy “day that I rued.” And now he realizes death is coming, why not cheer up? This is found in the fact that the day was “saved.”
It’s not just a simple snow about poem.

Many people think Frost’s most famous, most often memorized and taught poem below is also a complex poem about death and suicide. I disagree:

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Some scholars say that the poem is a description of a person contemplating suicide. They see this in his stopping in the woods, with the attraction he feels to the darkness and deepness of the woods and the fact that he is so far in this deep, dark place that any act of despair will be private—witnessed by no one— not even God. The fact that it is the “darkest evening of the year” says to these scholars that this moment is the worst in the speaker’s life. The decision to return to life is a relief, therefore when he/she remembers responsibilities, calling and a sense of belonging to society found in “promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.” In poetry, sleep is “death’s second self,” as Shakspeare says or sleep, because the person is lying down, with eyes closed and is not aware in the same way, represents death. It’s a picture of death.

I can see all this as arguable in the poem but I really think it is about Santa Claus.

The images fit much better, if you realize that by “horse” he really means reindeer. The “darkest evening of the year” is a clue for the Winter Solstice” around when Santa takes his trip. He normally stops at farmhouses, so when he stops “without a farmhouse near” it is surprising to his “horse.”

The problem with the other interpretation that is answered here is that stopping to look at the snow, to listen to the drift of “downy flake” is not an inherently depressed thing to do. It’s a lovely thing to do and the sort of thing that Santa in his twinkly-eyed way of looking at life would surely do.

And of course, the promises he has to keep are the presents still to be delivered at all those houses along all those miles he must still travel.

You must agree that my interpretation fits a lot better and is also cheerful.


  1. Loris, Great poems. Pics of the winter wonderland is nice too. Hope you are doing well and now I need to get caught up with everyone. Trying to get to work tonight. Waiting for the Nation Guard to come and get me! Take care, Stephanie

  2. I agree that the suicide interpretation is lacking to some extent and I believe that is because anyone who has stopped to watch the snow fall in woods will know it brings joy, in fact other than my wedding and the birth of my children I would say doing so was one of the happiest moments of my life, it is inherently wondrous.

    But I have a really hard time accepting that Frost would write about saint nick. At least directly. It must be some silly preconceived idea I have about him. Any way it always stuck me as about a man, perhaps a traveling merchant or peddler that was one his way home for the solstice. And the description happens to echo Santa which fits with the theme of a solstice traveler.

  3. The idea that this note-worthy poem could be about Santa Claus is simply absurd!