‘Snow-flakes‘ is a beautiful example of Longfellow’s verse. It utilizes the gentle images and simple language that Longfellow, as a Fireside Poet, was known for. His work is easy to read and relate to, making it incredibly popular during his lifetime and to the present day.
Snow-flakes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Out of the bosom of the Air, Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken, Over the woodlands brown and bare, Over the harvest-fields forsaken, Silent, and soft, and slow Descends the snow. Even as our cloudy fancies take Suddenly shape in some divine expression, Even as the troubled heart doth make In the white countenance confession, The troubled sky reveals The grief it feels. This is the poem of the air, Slowly in silent syllables recorded; This is the secret of despair, Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded, Now whispered and revealed To wood and field.
‘Snow-flakes’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a beautiful poem in which Longfellow depicts the falling snow.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker describes snow falling from the sky and landing on the empty woodland and the abandoned fields. Once dark and somewhat gloomy places are livened by the addition of this pure white snow. But, as the next two stanzas reveal, Longfellow does not see the snow as an entirely happy image.
In fact, the rest of the poem is devoted to comparing the sky letting snow fall to the ground to a human being in confession or announcing their grief to the world. The snow is, he concludes, “the secret of despair” that was long-hoarded in the sky’s “bosom” and now falls on field and wood.
Structure and Form
‘Snow-flakes’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Throughout, the poet uses simple language that’s easy to read and understand while still managing to craft intricate and interesting examples of imagery.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Personification: can be seen when the poet imbues a non-human feature of their poem with human characteristics. For example, “In the white countenance confession, / The troubled sky reveals / The grief it feels.”
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Silent, and soft, and slow.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza two.
- Imagery: can be seen with the poet uses especially effective examples and descriptions. For example, “Out of the bosom of the Air, / Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken.”
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
In the first stanza of the poem, Longfellow immediately presents readers with a great example of personification. The poet describes the “Air” shaking out “her garments,” and bringing snow down upon the earth. Prior to the fall of the snow, the “woodlands” were “brown and bare” (an example of alliteration).
The poem has a distinct song-like quality that is evident in these first lines. It has seen through the poet’s use of literary devices like alliteration, perfect rhymes, and anaphora. The latter can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “out,” which begins the first two lines, and “over,” which begins the third and fourth lines.
The first stanza creates a powerful atmosphere that is also relatively easy to imagine. While still feeling magical and special, the snowy woods are relatable and peaceful. The poet describes how the snow also falls on the “harvest fields forsaken.” The fields have been abandoned, perhaps for the season or perhaps forever, and are alive and made more beautiful by the addition of the pure white snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
In the second stanza, the poet begins crafting a comparison between the “cloudy fancies” of one’s mind with the “grief” that the falling snow reveals. Utilizing more examples of personification, the poet suggests that the “troubled sky” revealed grief by raining down snow upon the landscape. This occurs in the same way that the “troubled heart doth make” a “countenance confession.”
This stanza is more complicated than the one which preceded it, but it’s clear that the poet feels the importance of relating a particular series of feelings, grief, relief, and peace that can be seen in a human being’s heart and the falling snow.
This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.
In the final stanza, the poet seems to the speaking about the nature of the text itself. They know that this is the “poem of the air.” But, as the lines progress, it becomes clear that the “poem” that they’re talking about is the image of the snow falling. It has the same lyrical, beautiful qualities but is simply falling in “silent syllables.”
This example of alliteration is another instance of Longfellow imbuing this poem with a music-like quality. Examples continue in the final four lines as well.
The poet makes another declarative statement using the opening lines “this is the.” They note that the snow falling is “the secret of despair.” It is the secret emotion that the “cloudy bosom hoarded” up in the sky and which is now “whispered and revealed. The poet, and anyone watching, can see this grief falling from the sky and covering the once barren woodlands and fields.
The main themes are grief/sorrow and nature. Throughout the three short stanzas of this text, Longfellow compares the sky letting forth a shower of snow to it releasing its grief into the world and revealing it for what it is. This beautiful image is made more complex through the introduction of feelings of sorrow and confession.
The speaker is unknown, but it is possible that Longfellow wrote this poem from his own perspective after watching a snowfall. The poem utilizes a familiar lyrical voice that readers of Longfellow’s verse will know very well. Plus, the speaker’s ability to analyze and describe the natural world with emotional and lyrical language suggests that Longfellow saw himself as the narrative voice describing the events of the poem.
The message is that even in the simplest of natural occurrences, such as snowfall, much emotion can be interpreted. Longfellow’s speaker, whether it is the poet himself or someone else, sees snowfall and feels as though the sky is shedding grief in a unique and beautiful way.
Longfellow likely wrote this poem in order to take a new approach to the description of a snowfall that imbues the experience with a different kind of emotion. The poet suggests that in addition to beauty, one can also find sorrow in a new snowfall.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems. For example:
- ‘My Lost Youth’ – a lyric meditating upon the poet’s youthful days. It was a glorious time of his life when he was as fresh as dew and as energetic as sea tides.
- ‘To the River Charles’ – is a meditation upon the river Charles, an 80-mile long river in eastern Massachusetts.
- ‘A Psalm of Life’ – a thoughtful poem about life’s struggles. The poet addresses the best way to confront these difficulties on an everyday basis.
- ‘Song of the Owl’ – describes the hooting of the great black owl.