The Cross of Snow by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Grief is one of the most powerful emotions the heart can experience, and it is a very common theme in many different styles of art because it is so difficult to express with simple words or images. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Cross of Snow is a poem about grief, one that attempts to capture this powerful and elusive emotion in the best way he knew how.


The Cross of Snow Analysis

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,

A gentle face — the face of one long dead —

Looks at me from the wall, where round its head

The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.

Here in this room she died; and soul more white

Never through martyrdom of fire was led

To its repose; nor can in books be read

The legend of a life more benedight.

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

The Cross of Snow is a very powerful piece in large part because of its honest and straightforward language. Many poets will approach a theme such as immense grief or suffering with an abstract approach, one that captures the emotion by indirectly pointing out how difficult it is to properly express. In this poem, Longfellow speaks plainly about the death of a woman and uses his own feelings to propel the meaning of the poem, using only sparing metaphors to express them.


Analysis for Meaning

The Cross of Snow is a sonnet — its s fourteen lines long, and in the Petrarchan style, which means it rhymes according to a specific pattern (ABBA ABBA CDEC DE). In order to more easily discuss the nuances and ideas that drive the poem, it can be easily be divided into four verses, of three lines each, save for a single couplet as the fourth part.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,

A gentle face — the face of one long dead —

Looks at me from the wall, where round its head

The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.

In the first part of the sonnet, Longfellow introduces the primary subject of the poem — the image of a deceased person’s face, as though they are angelic in form. Important to note are words like “long,” “gentle,” and “halo,” all of which add important contextual information to the story. When the speaker describes sleepless watches at nighttime, the implication is that they are guarding something carefully, which is juxtaposed noticeably with the decidedly gentle face of the “long” dead, suggesting this is a long-standing ritual. They imagine the head of the deceased as being against a nearby wall, where a lamp creates a halo-like effect around them — the less-than-subtle implication being that in contrast to the grim guard keeping watch at night, this person was like an angel during their lifetime.

Here in this room she died; and soul more white

Never through martyrdom of fire was led

To its repose; nor can in books be read

The legend of a life more benedight.

The reason the speaker cannot sleep in this room is now clear: it is the room that the woman died in. By the description “martyrdom of fire,” she was burned to death, and that the death was in some way a sacrifice. The image of flame is contrasted with the idea of a soul of pure white, and the speaker further encourages this idea by suggesting that should the reader be so inclined to search, they would never hear mention of a more blessed soul anywhere in imagination of history (“benedight” is a now-outdated word that was, in Longfellow’s time, a synonym for “blessed”). Longfellow’s word choice continues to be telling — he describes a “repose,” rather than a death, which is a word more commonly associated with the serene and peaceful passing, as opposed to the more painful and frightening idea of death by fire.

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

The final lines of the poem invoke the title metaphor in a powerful way, because of how strongly the idea of a “cross of snow” contrasts with the martyr’s flame described earlier. The idea of carrying an ice-cold cross above the heart is a strong one, one that suggests the speaker’s heart has stopped caring in a way that it once did, and is now cold, eighteen years later. The idea of a cross likely comes from Christian tradition where a person’s “cross to bear” refers to their inner burdens or demons that they are bound to carry on their conscience. The speaker carries the death of this woman in the form of an ice-cold heart and an inability to see beauty within the world — for all of the seasons seem exactly the same, and eighteen years pass by as simply a chronology of “changing scenes.” The simplicity of this statement lends the sonnet most of its power — it doesn’t use complex or abstract poetic language or devices, but simply states the feeling plainly to best express its devastation.


Historical Context

H.W. Longfellow wrote The Cross of Snow in 1879, three years before his own death, and eighteen years after the death of his wife, Frances “Fanny” Appleton. Most historic records indicate that Longfellow was deeply in love with Appleton; he courted her for seven years, never giving up or wavering in his determination or passion for her. Together, they brought six children into the world, and he wrote the sole love poem across his entire career for her (The Evening Star). In 1961, Frances Appleton’s dress caught fire, and although Longfellow reacted quickly, he was unable to extinguish the flames before she was very badly burned. She died the next day, and Longfellow suffered deeply afterwards, fearing for his own mental stability after being unable to attend her funeral, as a result of the burns he received trying to save her. Eighteen years later, he wrote The Cross of Snow about the event and his grief.

There are many references to the events of that sad day in this sonnet. The “martyrdom of fire” is a likely reference to the means of Appleton’s death, while the final lines make specific reference to the exact time between her death and the creation of this poem. After Appleton’s death, Longfellow’s career focused more on translation than on original works, but The Cross of Snow is clear indication that his talents were as powerful as they had always been, though it is truly unfortunate they they were as fuelled by grief as they were for this particular sonnet.

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