Poems of my Father — #3

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Photo by Austin Fathman on Unsplash

The First Snowfall

The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

And again to the child I whispered,
“The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!”

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.

— James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)

My father was born in Memphis, Tennessee and I assume that through the first 18 years of his life, he rarely, if ever, saw snow. At the age of 32, when I was just turning nine years old, we moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. When it snowed, my Dad would take me for what he called a “snow walk” where we would talk and enjoy the quiet of the streets.

On those walks, which always felt like a treat, my father would often recite the opening two verses of “The First Snowfall” which he knew by heart:

The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all the night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.

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 words are magical. The snowfall started in the “gloaming” which is twilight. It fell “busily” as if it had a job to take care of — to dress up the otherwise impoverished trees with the white fur of ermine, and the coating of pearl which captures perfectly the mixture of snow and ice that trees can wear after a snowfall.

The third verse is pretty good, too — carrara is a kind of marble. Chanticleer is a rooster whose crow is muffled by the sound-proofing that snow provides.

In 1978, my parents moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where snow is almost as rare as it is in Memphis and it rarely falls thickly enough to dress up the trees. I took the occasional snow walk with my own children in St. Louis and suburban DC when they were growing up. I would often think of the poem, but I didn’t know it by heart, alas, and missed a chance to share those lines with my children.

I don’t remember my father ever reciting more than the first two verses. I don’t remember ever reading the full poem. And then, maybe a half a century after I first heard the poem’s beginning, I stumbled on the full poem. I had always assumed it was just one of those poems extolling the beauties of nature. I didn’t know of the radical change of subject that the poem takes in the fifth verse as it turns to its real subject, the death of Lowell’s daughter, and the nature of grief and mourning.

The last verse brings tears to my eyes — the heartbeak of a father whose joy in his living daughter is melded inexorably with the death of her sister. It’s sentimental and I feel manipulated but it works on me every time. Maybe because I’m a father. Or maybe it’s just an exquisite bit of sentimentality. The way the last verse is constructed is quite extraordinary. An immense amount of emotion is conveyed in the way he describes something quite mundane — a father lost in thought, looking out the window at falling snow and kissing the daughter who stands beside him.

I wonder why my Dad never read me the rest of the poem, but I know that his mother lost a baby girl after my father was born, the sister my father never had. I’ve seen her little headstone in a Memphis cemetery without even a name, just “Baby Roberts.”

And I wonder if every time it snowed, and my father recited those two opening verses, if he thought back to his mother’s loss and her heartbreak that he knew lay beneath the surface of her emotional life. Those snow walks my dad and I took together probably had a different feel for him than they had for me, as he recited the opening verses and thought of the ending, and of his mother’s pain. If I’m right, he kept his emotions from me, just as the poet does from his own child in the last verse of the poem.

Questions to Think About:

  1. Why is the poem called “The First Snowfall.” Why not just “The Snowfall?”

2. The falling snow is a metaphor. How would you describe what Lowell is using it to capture?

3. The “All-father” is God. How would you describe Lowell’s view of Divine mercy (and its limits)?

4. What does the phrase “with eyes that saw not” mean in the last verse?

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