The poem is relatively short but within the lines, there is a great deal to be discovered. The progress of the snow, steadily covering everything between the house and the barn, is a memorable image. Readers are likely to come to different conclusions regarding Bly’s final image of the blind sailors.
Explore Snowfall in the Afternoon
‘Snowfall in the Afternoon’ by Robert Bly is a beautiful poem describing how snow transforms a landscape.
Throughout interesting images that focus on the transformation of a landscape, the poet creates a semi-surrealistic, dreamlike narrative. It ends with the image of blind sailors on a boat at sea for many years. The poem leaves readers without any answers to their questions and will likely create a variety of impressions.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Snowfall in the Afternoon’ by Robert Bly is a four-stanza poem that is divided into tercets, or sets of three lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The end words, such as “snow,” “afternoon,” and “dark” don’t rhyme. The lines are also of different lengths, visually and syllabically.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “As the snow grows heavier the cornstalks fade farther away.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound a the beginning of multiple words. For example, “snowfall” and “starts” in line two of the first stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Juxtaposition: the use of two images or ideas that contrast one another. For example, the white snow in the first stanza and the dark of falling night as the poem progresses.
The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.
In the first three lines of ‘Snowfall in the Afternoon,’ the speaker begins with a short statement that lets the reader know what the snow and grass are like. They use words like “the sort of,” in addition to exclamation marks that give the poem a casual tone. They are describing their world in simple language that all readers will be able to understand.
If I reached my hands down near the earth
A darkness was always there which we never noticed.
The speaker refers to themselves as “I” in the second stanza. They feel as though they could reach their hands down “near the earth” and take in “handfuls of darkness” as it settles on the world again. It’s a “darkness,” they add that “we never noticed.” It’s unclear who exactly “we” is in these lines, but it seems likely that the speaker is talking about humans generally. There is a darkness, they’re saying, that’s always there and is nearly tangible.
As the snow grows heavier the cornstalks fade farther away
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.
In the third stanza, this speaker notes how everything under the snow, like the cornstalks, starts to fade away as the “snow grows heavier.” The distance between objects is shortened because everything is consumed by a single substance. No longer are there objects, plants, etc., to mark the distance between the barn and the house. The former is alone, (when viewed from the house) out in the “growing storm.” The obscuring nature of the snow adds to the overall mystery of the poem. It requires readers consider how they could feel looking out and seeing the “barn” as it “moves all alone in the growing storm” (an example of personification).
The barn is full of corn and moves toward us now
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
There is an element of surrealism in these lines. The speaker emphasizes how the “barn…moves toward us now.” They also use a simile of a ship being blown on a stormy sea as a comparison. The ship is being blown around from place to place and controlled by sailors who have “been blind for many years.” This suggests a complete lack of control and connects back to the idea of the darkness that’s been there for a long time. This may inspire readers to interpret a lack of control in the speaker’s world. The snow may be bringing these feelings to the speaker’s mind in a new way.
The poet could be using these lines to speak to ignorance and a lack of understanding of the world. If one can imagine it, it’s terrifying to consider a ship sailed by blind men tossing on the sea. It seems obvious they wouldn’t be able to control where the ship goes, but somehow they’re still alive after having been blind for many years. This implies that the speaker may feel connected to this mystery of remaining alive and intact despite not being on a particular course.
The tone is peaceful and serene. The speaker describes a scene that’s easy to imagine and that readers are likely to leave with more questions than answers.
The themes at work in this poem are an understanding of life and nature. The poem emphasizes both of these through its depictions of snowfall and how it consumes everything recognizable.
The speaker is someone who lives on a farm. They are familiar with all the farming implements around them. They also are interested in the weather and the patience to contemplate it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Snowfall in the Afternoon’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Snow Vision’ by Rita Reed – a beautiful short poem that uses natural images, such as that of a tree, the snow, the wind, and the sun, to craft a fleeting scene.
- ‘Dust of Snow’ by Robert Frost – a simple tale of how a speaker’s mood was changed by a snowfall. A love of nature is enough to elevate the speaker into a happier state of mind.
- ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice – a straightforward poem about a winter scene, but the truth is much more complex.