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For a Winter’s Day” Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm”

For a Winter’s Day” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm”

February 16, 2017


Fitting for this time of year as the Northeast and the Northwest U.S. are being pounded by snow sometimes measured in feet, not inches, is this classic winter poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord.

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 farm-house 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 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 structures, stone by stone,

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,

The frolic architecture of the snow.

One of Emerson’s early commentators, George Edward Woodbury, wrote in 1907 that “Imagination with Emerson usually is set in motion by some psychological thought or by the presence of something elemental in the scene. His mind expands with the greatness of what is before him, and reaches a loftier height even when he is still in the regions of description, as . . . ‘The Snow-Storm,’ equally admirable as a picture of human home and of the wild grandeur of nature.”


So here comes the snowstorm in the first stanza compared by Emerson as a royal procession coming into town announced by heralds. The snow comes in and completely dominates the landscape. It “veils the farm house.” The sled carrying the royal personages stops. The couriers’ feet can go no further. That’s the outside scene. Inside, all the housemates of the farmstead sit warming themselves around the fire.

Emerson follows this cozy scene by describing the aftermath of the storm, and he does so as a commentary on the essence of artistic creation compared to nature’s creation. While the artist toils over his statuary columns of the finest marble—Parian marble—nature comes through and creates art far superior to that of the human hands: “Come see the north wind’s masonry.” Nature creates “wild work,” “fanciful, savage.” Nature creates organically—“nought cares he/ for number and proportion.” Humanity may create with just and true proportion works that last. “Astonished art,” though, “mocks” or imitates humanity’s lasting monuments with its—notice the oxymoron—“frolic architecture” of the snowstorm.

Stay inside folks. Keep warm. And follow The Literary Life blog.

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