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“The Cross of Snow” is an elegiacal poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is an autobiographical poem that brings out the poet’s own pain upon the demise of his beloved wife.
About the Poet:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was a notable American poet. He holds the honour of having a bust built in the Westminster Abbey. Famous works of his include “The Song of Hiawatha”, “A Psalm of Life” and “The Village Blacksmith”.
This poem is structured in the form of a sonnet. It follows the Petrarchan sonnet style and can thus be divided into an octave consisting of 8 lines and a sestet of 6 lines. It is written in iambic pentameter.
Analysis and Summary:
In the long, sleepless watches of the night, A gentle face — the face of one long dead — Looks at me from the wall, where round its head The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light. Here in this room she died; and soul more white Never through martyrdom of fire was led To its repose; nor can in books be read The legend of a life more benedight.
The octave begins with a rather ominous image. The poet states how, during the night, he saw “A gentle face”. This face is described to be “the face of one long dead”. This sinister image is washed away when the poet states that the lamp seems to cast “a halo of pale light” around this familiar face. It is then revealed by the poet that “she” – the identity of the face now revealed– had died in the very same room he was currently occupying. He describes her soul to be “more white” than “martyrdom of fire”; books could not compare to the life of her, “The legend”, as it was far “more benedight” or blessed.
Through this stanza, the poet successfully manages to bring out both, the grief that accompanies the death of a loved one as well as the intimacy she had shared with her. He beautifully brings out the love he still feels for his beloved wife.
There is a mountain in the distant West That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines Displays a cross of snow upon its side. Such is the cross I wear upon my breast These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
Here, the poet describes a “cross of snow” in a faraway place in the “distant West”. He states that this is akin to the Christian “cross” that he wears “upon his breast”. The poem ends on a mournful note with the poet declaring that ever since her death– for eighteen years– the seasons seemed to never change for him at all.
A shift takes place in the sestet, as is the nature of a Petrarchan sonnet. It shifts from the love he had for her to the void that reigned in the years he lived in her absence. Here, the poet describes a “cross of snow” – the title of the poem– to be the cross he ‘bears’ (a Christian allusion), the snow thus referring to the cold numbness he felt on his wife’s passing. To him, even seasons did not bring about change, meaning to say that her death had brought his life to a complete standstill, filled with grief and sorrow.
This is a heart-wrenching poem. It brings out the deep love a husband has for his wife even after her death and the aching sorrow he has to cope with in his life devoid of her.