‘The Snow Fairy’ is an image-rich poem in which McKay uses the winter season, a snowfall, and the appearance of a lover to depict a dream-like state of mind. Throughout the poem, he uses lines that help the reader imagine the scene in great detail. These are physical details, such as that of snow in the air, but also emotional ones as the speaker develops a narrative around the snowflakes.
Explore The Snow Fairy
The first of the two sonnets focuses on a snowfall, something he compares to “snow-fairies” fighting for supremacy in the sky and then resting peacefully on the ground. He uses personification throughout the piece, until the end when they’ve “gone,” or melted away.
In the second sonnet, the speaker picks his line of thought immediately back up with the word “And.” It appears that the first sonnet has led him to the thoughts he has in the second. He imagines “you,” an unknown listener and the speaker’s lover, coming to him and bringing warmth and summer into his home. Together, the two go to bed. When he wakes up, this person is gone as if they left with the dawn as a dream.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Snow Fairy,’ the poet engages with themes of nature and dreams. The latter also includes some elements of creative magic as the poet uses interesting images and metaphors to depict his experiences with snow and the lover in the second sonnet. Nature is the primary focus of the first sonnet. He spends the lines uses figurative language to describe the snowfall as something supernatural, a parade of “fairies” falling from the sky only to pile up on the ground, merge, and disappear as the day gets warmer. The language in these lines is perfectly fitting for the content and the tone the poet wanted to create. In the end, both sonnets are inescapably dream-like.
Structure and Form
‘The Snow Fairy’ by Claude McKay is a two stanza, a two-part poem that is separated into sets of fourteen lines, the traditional length of a sonnet. The rhyme scheme of each fourteen-line stanza also supports the sonnet structure. The lines rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG, the pattern popularized by William Shakespeare in his 154 sonnets. McKay also uses a recognizable metrical pattern throughout most of the lines, iambic pentameter. This was the same pattern that Shakespeare and Petrarch (known for the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form) used. It refers to the number of beats per line and the placement of the stresses. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed.
McKay makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Snow Fairy.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and examples of similes and metaphors. The latter is a comparison between two things using “like” or “as”. There is a good example in the second stanza or sonnet when the poet uses the line “My heart was like the weather when you came.” There is also an example of a metaphor in this stanza, at the end of the poem. The speaker compares himself to “the lonely actor of a dreamy play.”
Alliteration is a type of repetition that’s concerned with the use of consonant sounds. For example, “fairies falling, falling” in line two of part one and “space supremacy” just a few lines later. This kind of repetition helps increase the overall feeling of rhyme and rhythm in a poem.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight of stanza one and lines one and two of stanza two.
Throughout the afternoon I watched them there,Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky,Whirling fantastic in the misty air,Contending fierce for space supremacy.And they flew down a mightier force at night,As though in heaven there was revolt and riot,And they, frail things had taken panic flightDown to the calm earth seeking peace and quiet.I went to bed and rose at early dawnTo see them huddled together in a heap,Each merged into the other upon the lawn,Worn out by the sharp struggle, fast asleep.The sun shone brightly on them half the day,By night they stealthily had stol’n away.
In the first stanza of ‘The Snow Fairy,’ the speaker begins by describing “Snow-fairies falling…from the sky.” He tells the listener, his lover, that he spent the afternoon “there” watching them. This fantastic initial image is meant to engage the reader’s imagination and make them want to continue through the lines to see what other images the poet presents. The snowflakes he’s watching are personified, if indeed they were fairies fighting for space in the sky. He uses the word “supremacy” in this line, suggesting that each one could be the most important at any one time.
Words like “revolt” and “riot” are juxtaposed in the next lines against the “frail” snowflakes in the air. They’re traveling down to earth to find “peace and quiet” somewhere safe from the tumultuous flight.
It’s at this point in the sonnet that McKay uses what’s known as a “turn.” He shifts the poem’s perceptive slightly to return to the first-person pronoun “I.” He describes his speaker getting up out of bed, looking outside, and seeing the snowflakes “huddled together in a heap,” or piled up, merging into one another. He continues to use personification to refer to the snow as “them.” The sun shone on them all day until hours later they had “stealthily…stol’n away.” This is an allusion to the fact that the snow melted as the warmer hours of the day progressed. The word “stol’n” in the fourteenth line of this stanza is an example of synecdoche.
And suddenly my thoughts then turned to youWho came to me upon a winter’s night,When snow-sprites round my attic window flew,Your hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light.My heart was like the weather when you came,The wanton winds were blowing loud and long;But you, with joy and passion all aflame,You danced and sang a lilting summer song.I made room for you in my little bed,Took covers from the closet fresh and warm,A downful pillow for your scented head,And lay down with you resting in my arm.You went with Dawn. You left me ere the day,The lonely actor of a dreamy play.
The second part of this poem starts with the word “And” ensuring that the reader knows this part goes with the part that came before it. The speaker takes a more personal tone in these lines as he addresses his lover. He tells this person that his thoughts turn to them “suddenly.” The poet uses the same atmosphere of a magic-seeming snowfall to describe an interaction with his lover, one that’s strongly imprinted upon his mind. He remembers how this person came to him with “hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light.” There is a simile in the fifth line in which he compares his heart to the “weather” when this person came to him. It was filled with powerful emotions that blew like the winds were “blowing loud and long.”
In juxtaposition to the snow-related imagery, he describes his lover as filled with “joy and passion all aflame.” All of a sudden the atmosphere of the poem feels warmer and more like summer. This person uplifted the speaker’s spirits and he made room for them in his bed. In the morning, this person was gone, just like a dream.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Snow Fairy’ should also consider reading some of Claude McKay’s other poems. For example, ‘I Know My Soul,’ ‘Enslaved,’ and ‘If We Must Die.’ The latter is one of McKay’s best-known pieces. It is addressed to the Black community advocating for courage and the strength to fight oppression. In ‘Enslaved,’ the poet transforms sorrow and rage into a beautiful poem that explores segregation and oppression. ‘I Know My Soul’ is a sonnet that discusses the importance of honesty.