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The poem “The First Snowfall” is written by the American poet James Russell Lowell. The poem talks about the speaker describing the first snowfall of the winter season. The speaker watches the snowfall with his daughter. The poem moves from describing the snowfall to the darker theme of the speaker’s dead daughter. The poem talks about the cycle of life and the creation of snow by God. While talking about these themes, the speaker reminisces about his deceased daughter.
About the poet
James Russell Lowell was born in 1819 in Massachusetts, America. He was an American poet. He was also an editor and a renowned critic. He strongly opposed the system of slavery and also wrote several articles on the principle of abolitionism. He wrote a number of poems durning his lifetime, including “A Fable for Critica”, “The First Snowfall” and “The Present Crisis”.
The poem is written in the ballad style. It consists of 10 quatrains. A quatrain is a stanza made up of 4 lines.
The snow had begun in the gloaming, And busily all the night Had been heaping field and highway With a silence deep and white.
The spreader describes the time of the snowfall. He says that the snow started falling at dusk and fell the entire night. The speaker says that the snow had covered all the fields as well as the highway. Looking at the landscape, the speaker says that the snow covered everything with silence and white.
The poet talks about the snow fall. He says that the snow started falling at twilight or “the gloaming”. Then the snow did not stop falling and fell throughout the entire night. By the morning it had covered everything, from open fields to highways. The poet says that the snow had covered everything in “silence deep and white”. The silence can refer to some internal pain that the poet might be feeling. This pain is “deep” within him. The poet uses the term “white” for the silence of the snow. This can symbolize the peace that snow brings.
Every pine and fir and hemlock Wore ermine too dear for an earl, And the poorest twig on the elm-tree Was ridged inch deep with pearl.
The speaker looks out and sees the snow covering everything. All the vegetation is completely covered with snow. All the trees, like pine, fir and hemlock are covered in snow. He says that the snow on the trees looked like white coat worn by an earl. It gave off the image of a rich fur white coat. Amidst this the speaker notices a small twig on an elm tree. This little twig was covered inches deep in snow.
The poet uses polysyndeton in the first line to elaborately describe the snow covering every tree. He says that every pine, fir and hemlock tree was covered in snow. He compares this image to an Earl wearing an “ermine”. Earl stands for an English nobleman of the time. An Ermine is a white coat worn by nobility. After this scene, the poet’s attention is drawn towards a small twig on the elm-tree. This twig, the poet says, was covered thickly with snow. The poet compares the snow on the twig with white pearls. The twig also serves a metaphor for the poet’s lost daughter who is covered with snow under the earth.
From sheds new-roofed with Carrara Came Chanticleer's muffled crow, The stiff rails were softened to swan's-down, And still fluttered down the snow.
The speaker then notices the roofs of the sheds in the surrounding area covered in white snow. This snow looks so white to the speaker that he compares it to the pristine white marble called Carrara. He hears the muffled crowing of the Chanticleer. The speaker also hears the softened sounds made by the swans while they fly away. The speaker notices that while he looked at everything else, the snow was still falling down.
The poet looks at the snow covered roofs of the sheds and compares them to having roofs of Carrara. Carrara is a marble which is white in color. The poet hears a faint sound of the Chanticleer crowing. A Chanticleer is a rooster present in fables of the middle age. The snow has muted both the crowing of the rooster as well as the sounds of the swans. The sound of everything is described as “stiff rails” by the poet. This can symbolize the stiffness in his heart. Even though the poet is sad, the snow keeps falling down.
I stood and watched by the window The noiseless work of the sky, And the sudden flurries of snow-birds, Like brown leaves whirling by.
The speaker stands and watches the scene before him. He watches from his window the snow falling down. He says that the snow falls noiselessly from the sky. There is a sense of peace in this image. The calm scene is suddenly disturbed by the birds flowing away. These flurries of the white snow-birds is like the brown leaves that fly away after falling from the trees. Just like the birds fly away when the winter comes, the leaves also fly away in autumn.
The poet looks out of his window and takes in the scene before him. He watches the snow fall noiselessly from the sky. This image is a metaphor for the poet’s internal turmoil. He stays silent while pain and tears drop like snowfall inside him. This scene is suddenly disturbed by the quick movement of the birds flying away. The poet compares the flying birds to fallen brown leaves. The leaves fly away with the wind just like the birds. This is a symbol for the daughter that the poet lost. She has also gone away from her father.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn Where a little headstone stood; How the flakes were folding it gently, As did robins the babes in the wood.
The speaker looks at the celery before him and thinks of a little mound in Auburn. He thinks about the headstone of his daughter. On the grave the poet imagines the snowflakes falling gently. These snowflakes are seen as a blanket folding over the grave to keep the grave warm and protect it against further cold. This scene reminds him of the mother robin protecting her babies and keeping them warm.
The poet is transported to Auburn, where his daughter was buried. He imagines the mounds, a symbol for headstone on a grave. The poet thinks of his daughter’s grave being covered in snow. The poet describes this scene as the snowflakes folding over the tombstone gently like a mother covering her child with a blanket. The poet compares this image to a robin mother bird covering her babies to keep them warm in the cold. This image shows that the poet believes that Mother Nature is looking after and protecting his daughter after death.
Up spoke our own little Mabel, Saying, "Father, who makes it snow?" And I told of the good All-father Who cares for us here below.
The speaker’s daughter asks him a question. She asks her father who makes the snow. This question catches the speaker off-guard. To answer the daughter’s question the speaker replies by saying that it is the “All-father” who creates the snow. By “All-father”, the speaker is referring to God. He also says that the snow is made by someone who takes care of everyone in the world.
The poet’s thoughts are interrupted suddenly when his second daughter, Mabel. Out of child-like curiosity, the little girl asks about the maker of the snow. To this question, the poet replies by saying that it is the All-father who makes the snow, All-father is a reference to God. The poet says that snow is made by God, who also takes care of everyone on this earth. The poet calls God, All-father because God looks after all his children like a father.
Again I looked at the snow-fall, And thought of the leaden sky That arched o'er our first great sorrow, When that mound was heaped so high.
The speaker looks back outside at the snowfall again. Hr starts looking at the scenery in front of him again and looks up at the sky. The sky is gloomy in the same way it was when the speaker was feeling his first great sorrow. He says that the leaden sky ached over him while he buried his daughter and put up the tombstone.
The poet is again reminded of his loss when he looks at the leaden sky. Leaden sky means a dark and gloomy sky. The sky is gloomy because it is a reflection of the poet’s emotions. The poet remembers the same gloomy sky on the burial day of his daughter. He says that the same sky arche over him and his family when they buried his daughter and heaped up the mound.
I remembered the gradual patience That fell from that cloud-like snow, Flake by flake, healing and hiding The scar of our deep-plunged woe.
The speaker talks about remembering the snow falling with patience. The cloud-like snow fell flake by flake. The snow is like the gradual patience, which falls piece by piece and slowly helps heal or hide the speaker’s pain and sadness. The pain and sadness comes from losing a young child. The snow hides the deep scars left behind by the death of the speaker’s first daughter.
The poet uses metaphor and compares the snow to an abstract idea, “gradual patience”. The poet says that slowly with patience the cloud-like snow fell. The cloud-like snow reflects patience and gradual movement. Just like the snow, the poet also practices patience and slowness in life. The snow, flake by flake, fills in the deep wounds of loss in the poet. It helps the poet to heal from the loss or at least hide the scar of the death of a daughter. The snow metaphorically helps the poet in his healing process.
And again to the child I whispered, "The snow that husheth all, Darling, the merciful Father Alone can make it fall!"
The speaker addresses his daughter again. He remains quiet and wailer to her. He tells her that the snowfall that created silence everywhere is made by the merciful Father. The speaker says that it is this father alone who has the ultimate power over everything. He alone has the power to create snow fall.
The poet whispers to Mabel that the snow that makes everything fall silent is created by God. The poet’s whispering state shows his state of mind, hushed and slow. The line “The snow that husheth all” is a symbol of death. The hush over everyone is the silence of death. The poet is resentful against God because he is the only one who can create the hush of death. The stanza ends with an exclamation which emphasis on the father’s resentment against God for the death of his daughter.
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her; And she, kissing back, could not know That my kiss was given to her sister, Folded close under deepening snow.
The speaker kisses Mabel but he does not see her, instead he sees his first daughter. And the daughter, unaware of this, returns the kiss. The speaker says that the kiss was actually for the dead daughter. The other daughter was folded in her grave under the snow.
The poet has no choice but to accept his daugther’s death. His closes his eye and kisses Mabel. He closes his eyes because he was imagining his other daughter who he can not kiss or hold anymore. Mabel, without realising that the kiss was not for her, kisses her father back. The poet feels resigned becasue he wants to kiss the daughter who is dead and folded in her grave. The snow, like life, continues to fall and covers the grave deeper and deeper.