The Buck in the Snow by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Buck in the Snow’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a twelve-line poem which is separated into one set of five lines, or quintet, one single line, and then a final set of six lines, or sestet. ‘The Buck in the Snow’ has a very interesting rhyme scheme inn that the entire first stanza, the single line in the middle, and two lines of the last stanza all rhyme. Its twelve lines follow the pattern of: aaaaa a bacdaa. This is quite an unusual pattern and certainly works to create a sense of unity within this piece. 

There is no question that the poet wants her speaker to craft a certain tone at the beginning, and then as one will learn at the poem’s halfway point, shock the reader with its continuance. That being said, it is important to note that the first five lines of this piece are quite different, but also similar, to the final six. The first half of the poem holds nothing but peace and images of a pristine world, while the second casts a shadow over this world by bringing in death.

The Buck in the Snow by Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Summary of The Buck in the Snow

‘The Buck in the Snow’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay describes the power of death to overcome all boundaries and inflict loss on even the most peaceful of times. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing a beautiful snow-covered landscape in which she is exploring. She immediately turns to address her listener asking him/her if they were able to see the buck and the dear which passed by the hemlock trees earlier. With this image in mind, she tells the reader that now she has found the buck dead. 

Death, something the speaker finds to be endlessly interesting and strange, came and took the deer. It has the power to go wherever and whenever it wants to claim those it desires. Anyone could be next, including the last doe the speaker saw. 

 

Analysis of The Buck in the Snow

Lines 1-5

White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple-orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone-wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.

The speaker begins this piece by describing for the reader, and her listener, a specific scene. The poet has chosen to write this piece with a certain listener in mind. The speaker is addressing the entire poem to one person, or perhaps to one certain kind of person who needs to hear what she has to say. 

The scene that the speaker describes is one of peace. There is a “White sky,” that might seem cold and distant, but at this moment fits perfectly into the snowy world she is within. There are “hemlocks” all around the speaker which are so heavy with snow that they are “bowing,” or bending. Amazingly, with only a few words the poet has been able to paint a clear image of her world. 

The next line begins with her speaking to the listener. She is asking him/her a specific question if they saw the “antlered buck and his doe” at the “beginning of evening.” They were, she says, “Standing in the apple-orchard.” Whether the listener saw them or not, the speaker is ready to interject saying that she did. She “saw them” and then “saw them suddenly go.” The animals bounded off without a moment’s notice. 

The deer moved gracefully through this pristine winter landscape. They take “long” and “lovely” leaps. It is as if they are moving in slow motion, although the speaker knows this isn’t’ the case. The last she saw of the animals, at least for now, was the sight of their tails going over the “stone-wall into the wood.” 

Just as she began this stanza she ends with, “hemlocks bowed with snow.” Here is where they disappeared, the last place she saw them. At this pint in the piece, the tone is quite calm and pleasant. There is nothing to be overly concerned about, a reader should not be expecting the turn that comes with the floating middle line. 

 

Line 6

Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.

This line state that “Now” the buck is in the snow at the speaker’s feet, she has found him with “his wild blood scalding the snow.” The deer’s life force, something so pure and alive, is fading away. It is moving away in the form of blood into the cold icy world that killed him. 

 

Lines 7-12

How strange a thing is death, bringing to his knees, bringing to his antlers
The buck in the snow.
How strange a thing,—a mile away by now, it may be,
Under the heavy hemlocks that as the moments pass
Shift their loads a little, letting fall a feather of snow—
Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.

Now that the poem has completed its turn to the darker side of life, the speaker is able to take her time contemplating what it means to die and how death is a “strange…thing.” 

The final sestet begins with just that statement that death is a “strange…thing” able to bring a beautiful, strong animal like a “buck” to “his knees …in the snow.” She does not feel like there should be any force on earth capable of this feat. A buck’s life should not drain out of it, nor should its “antlers” be in the snow. 

She continues on through this section of the poem to speak of death’s ability to move from place to place. It is not restricted by any human, animal, or immaterial force. It goes where it needs to when it needs to. 

In this particular situation, death could, she states, have moved from “Under the heavy hemlocks” which are moving under the weight of the snow they bare. It could already be on its way to its next victim. The speaker does not doubt that the next victim could be anther innocent creature, perhaps even the doe herself. The now lonely animal is filled with “Life” at the moment, staring out into the world, but death could soon come along behind. 

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  • Avatar Aurora says:

    ”How does the poet make this such a sad poem?”
    – this is one of the choices for an essay question I had recieved. How do I answer this effectively?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I would start by reading through the poem and looking for any poetic devices that have been used and consider the effects of those on a potential reader.

  • Avatar Michael says:

    The narrator is clearly addressing ”the white sky’ in the poem, otherwise the first line would be elliptical (ie without a verb). ‘White sky … saw you not?’

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