James Russell Lowell

The First Snowfall by James Russell Lowell

‘The First Snowfall’ by James Russell Lowe is a deeply sad poem about the death of a child and what it’s like to consider that loss as time passes. 

The poem is written in relatively simple language, allowing readers to interpret the speaker’s meaning and his similes and metaphors with ease. After a few stanzas, it becomes clear that there is much more going on in this poem than the title suggested. It’s about loss, God, and the passage of time far more than it is about a winter’s day or snowfall. 

The First Snowfall
James Russell Lowe

The snow had begun in the gloaming, And busily all the nightHad 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 skyThat 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 knowThat my kiss was given to her sister, Folded close under deepening snow.
The First Snowfall by James Russell Lowe


Summary 

The First Snowfall’ by James Russell Lowe is a heartbreaking poem about loss and recovery after the death of a child. 

The poem starts with a relatively simple description of a winter’s day snowfall. It slowly transforms into something somewhat darker, an expression of mourning for the speaker’s lost daughter. He’s with his remaining child, Mabel, discussing how God created the snow and can’t help but pretend to kiss his deceased child while the two are talking about God. 

Structure and Form 

The First Snowfall’ by James Russell Lowe is a ten-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. This is a pattern that’s commonly associated with ballads. Readers might also note the poet’s use of a meter that is quite similar to what is commonly associated with ballads, as well. 

This refers to alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Although the poem does not conform to this pattern perfectly, it is possible to see hints of it from stanza to stanza. 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. They include: 

  • Personification: occurs when the poet refers to the snow with human characteristics, for example, “And busily all the night / Had been heaping field and highway / With a silence deep and white.”
  • Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions, for example, “Every pine and fir and hemlock / Wore ermine too dear for an earl.”
    Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Carrara / Came Chanticleer’s.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanzas One and Two

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.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing the day that the snow heaped up upon itself overnight. It fell for hours, silently and deep. The poet uses personification to suggest that the snow was doing this of its own accord, as if it decided to pile high in the silence. 

The beauty of the scene is unmistakable. But, it is expanded in the second stanza when the speaker describes the elegance of the pine and fir trees; they were more beautiful and appeared to be sporting richer items than even “an earl” would be expected to have. Everything was covered in the beauty of the snow, even the “poorest twig on the elm tree.” The snow missed nothing, the speaker implies. 

Stanzas Three and Four 

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.

In the next lines, the speaker goes on to say that it wasn’t just the trees and plants that were covered with snow and looked beautiful; the entire world was blanketed with snow. The poet uses metaphors, comparing the “stiff” industrial rails to “swan’s-down.” This signifies the enormous transformation that the world has undergone overnight. Even the coldest, most manufactured-looking items appear soft and beautiful. 

It’s not until the third stanza that the speaker uses first-person pronouns, indicating that they’re present in the scene and seeing all of this play out. They note the “noiseless work of the sky” to cover everything in sight and the movements of the birds that move through the sky like blowing leaves (a great simile that fully represents the beauty and peace of the scene). 

Stanzas Five and Six 

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.

In the next few lines, the speaker says that the scene reminded him of “a mound in sweet Auburn” where someone was buried underneath a “little headstone.” This adds an immediate degree of sorrow to the poem’s imagery. Suddenly, the scene feels more mournful than it does celebratory. 

The speaker describes how the snow fell gently, momentarily pausing his thoughts about the small grave. Suddenly, there is a child in the scene. This young girl is named Mabel and speaks to her father, asking him where the snow comes from. The speaker, her father, tells her that the snow comes from “the good All-father,” God, who takes care of people on earth. He’s in Heaven, the speaker implies, looking on at everyone below. 

Stanzas Seven and Eight 

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.

The fact that there is a child in the scene adds a great deal to the poem’s content. It’s also something that’s quite important as the poem progresses. The speaker spends the next lines analyzing the scene and describing how it reminded him of “our first great sorrow,” specifically when the previously referenced mound was “heaped so high.” This suggests a time in the past when the person who passed away was only recently buried, and the earth on their grave had not yet settled. Since then, it has decreased in size, indicating that time has passed. 

The following lines explore the speaker’s grief, or “our deep-plunged woe.” This suggests that it wasn’t only the speaker/father who mourned this loss; it was also his daughter. 

Stanzas Nine and Ten

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.

In the final lines, the speaker talks to his daughter again, telling her that the “merciful Father,” God, can make all the snow he wants to fall to earth and change its majestic landscape. 

The poem ends with a slight twist, revealing to readers that the person who died was another child, Mabel’s sister. Mabel doesn’t realize, the speaker says, that when he kisses her on the head, he’s kissing her sister. She’s “Folded close under deepening snow.” This depicts the snow falling on her grave, putting her further beneath their feet and further away from them. But, it’s not an entirely depressing scene as the child is described as “folded close” as if she’s being taken care of. 

FAQs 

What is the theme of ‘The First Snowfall?’ 

The theme of ‘The First Snowfall’ is loss, especially the loss of a child and how that loss develops over time. This is the first snowfall that the speaker and his other daughter have experienced without their daughter/sister. 

What is the tone of ‘The First Snowfall?’

The tone moves from peaceful and descriptive to mournful and accepting. The speaker is clearly still mourning the loss of his child but does take some peace from the natural scene playing out in front of him. 

What is the meaning of ‘The First Snowfall?’

The message is that God takes care of everyone on earth, especially those who have passed away. The lost child is “folded close” in the ground and in God’s arms, the poet implies. 

What is ‘The First Snowfall’ about?

The poem appears, at first, to be about a winter’s day. But, at its heart, it is about the loss of a child and how time changes the experience of that loss. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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