Snow-season has arrived in the northern states, and that’s a good time to introduce your students to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s frosty “Snow-Storm,” one of the most commonly anthologized poems of nineteenth-century America and our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the first week of January:
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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), says the Poetry Foundation, “was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in the United States,” so every good homescholar should be acquainted with his name and his work. “The Snow-Storm” doesn’t look very poetical at first glance — it has a prose-y feel, and what’s worse, it doesn’t even rhyme. How can it be a poem? Well, if you start counting — always a good practice when you’re making the acquaintance of a new poem — you’ll see some of Emerson’s crafty art at work: the poem has 28 lines, and all but three have exactly ten syllables. That’s a very hard thing to accomplish without effort. One of the three misfits is the opening line of the second section and it’s typographically indented; that’s a standard marker for a partial line in poetry and drama. As for the other two irregularities — can you find them? — one has one extra syllable and the other is one short. I can almost imagine Emerson at his desk thinking, “That’s a really good line, but it has an extra syllable. Well, I’ll take one off somewhere else and it’ll balance out.”
In its content, “The Snow-Storm” can almost be read as two poems that are only loosely joined together. The first nine lines could easily stand alone as a separate work, and it’s almost tempting to think the two parts were written at different times. The first section emphasizes the storm’s effect on us, while the second section presents the storm as a builder, mason, and architect, creating overnight what it takes mortal masons an age to construct.
There’s some wonderful homeschool vocabulary to explore here. Send your students to your family dictionary (riverhouses.org/books) to look up artificer, bastions, myriad, and maugre (that’s a rare one today). And what about those “Parian wreaths” that the storm mockingly hangs on coop and kennel? You can go off on a great historico-literary quest with that particular phrase. Your dictionary (page 1282) will tell you that “Parian” means “relating to the island of Paros” and also to “a type of white, semitranslucent marble quarried at Paros and highly valued in ancient times for making sculpture”; and so also in a more modern sense, to “a fine white porcelain” similar to Parian marble. (Send your students to plate 72 in your atlas to find the island of Paros.) What, then, is Emerson’s storm doing? Overnight it’s hanging finely sculpted white marble wreaths on … temples and grand statues? No, on the farmer’s chicken coop and dog kennel!
The next time you’re out in a storm this winter — or even watching the winter weather on TV around a radiant fireplace — why not take along Emerson’s “Snow-Storm” and contemplate the north wind’s masonry and the frolic architecture of the snow.
What wonderful words have you found and what literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool this week? 😊
❡ The tumultuous privacy of storm: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 😊
❡ Explore more: The Poetry Foundation’s website includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Emerson) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses poetry calendar for the whole school year at riverhouses.org/calendars and follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends.