‘London Snow’ by Robert Bridges is a twenty-seven line poem that is all contained within one block of text. Bridges has chosen to give this poem a specific, and consistent rhyme scheme that only diverges from its pattern every few lines. The poem begins with the end rhymes, ababcbcdc, the second set of lines ends with different words but follows the same exact pattern. The rest of the poem continues in a similar form, with only one or two misplaced words per stanza.
It is also important to note the repetition of general ending sounds that are used in the poem. Bridges has emphasized the ‘ing’ sound in the first three sections. Even if all the words do not perfectly rhyme, they often create half or slant rhymes.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is snowing in the city, and since everyone is asleep, no one yet knows. When finally the city begins to wake, all are quiet. No one wants to disturb the peace of these moments. They all know it is fleeting and will not come again soon.
The narrator eventually flips the poem and begins to speak of himself in the first person. He becomes a character that walks along the trees of London listening to the yelling of schoolboys and enjoying their excitement over the beauty of what they are seeing for the first time.
In the final section he describes the “brown” of humanity returning to the snow as the sombre men walk to their workplaces. While it seems to be a depressing scene, in reality, they are lighter in mind and heart than usual and do find some pleasant diversion in the vastly changed landscape.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of London Snow
When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
The first lines of this piece take the reader to a place that is at once familiar, but also magical. Immediately one is placed in a position of knowledge as the subjects of the poem, the men and women of the city of London, are still sleeping as the main action occurs. There is snow falling over the city of which no one is yet aware, aside from the narrator and the readers, of course.
The speaker describes the snow as if it has its own agency. It “came flying,” seemingly by choice, “In large white flakes.” It has come to grace a city that is usually “brown.” The London of this era, just like many other cities, then and now, was known for dank streets and dirty thoroughfares. Snow, in all its purity, seems out of place within the “brown” muck of compressed humanity.
The poet continues to make use of anthropomorphism to describe the actions of the snow. It is gliding into the city “Stealthily.” Its inherent quietness disturbs no one and guarantees a surprise when everyone is finally awake. The streets begin to be covered by a layer of it, “hushing” the traffic of the still-sleeping town. The wheels of the cars make no noise as they pass over the snow.
Bridges uses a large number of verbs to describe the actions of the snow. They fall one after another creating a semi-rhyming pattern within the lines of the poem. The flakes are “sifting,” “floating,” “drifting and sailing” to the ground.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
In the second set of lines the speaker continues to describe the path of the snow and how it came to the streets of London that night. It continued to fall all through the night until it reached a “full…seven” inches. For London this is a remarkable amount of snow, but it still manages to lay in “lightness” on the ground.
By the time the city is getting up, the clouds that created the snow are long gone. They “blew off” from the sky leaving a clear view out over the newly white landscape. The light that this clearness creates brings everyone out of bed earlier. All the people of the city are used to much darker mornings.
While to some, a snowfall might seem unimportant, to the people of London it is a marvellous feat. Everyone is dazed by the “whiteness” and amazed by the silences of the streets as everyone contemplates the landscape. The city has undergone a true transformation. There are no cars or carts on the street, and those who do venture out, do so quietly. The “morning cries” are “thin and spare.” They are quiet and infrequent.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
The next set of lines signal a change in the poem, the speaker introduces himself using the first-person pronoun, “I.” He has left his house, intent on walking through the newly made city. The narrative of the piece narrows down and turns to focus on what the speaker can see from his perspective.
From where he is walking he can hear the “boys…calling.” They are on their way to school and stop to pick up and taste the magical snow. It contains what he calls, “manna,” which is a reference to a food mentioned in the bible that God provides for the Israelites. The snow is a benefit that no one was looking for.
The young boys are truly amazed by what they are seeing. So much so, they call to one another and express particular fondness for the trees. It seems as if they have never seen snow before. Perhaps this is the first time it has snowed since they were born.
There are only a few “carts” on the road and those which are there move along very quietly. Everyone is doing their best to preserve the peace of the morning for as long as possible.
The sun has only just come up, but most of the city is already awake, due to the brightness of the snow. The light is illuminating St. Paul’s Cathedral and spreading across the ground. It brings further glory to the landscape, but also alludes to the fact that the snow will melt sooner rather than later.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.
In the final seven lines, the speaker returns to focus on the moment he is living. The perfection of these few minutes and hours begin to come to a close as all the working men are forced to carry on with their lives. As they leave their homes a “war is waged with the snow.” They fight against it as they walk, in “trains of sombre men.”
The men are innumerable and serve as a stark remember of the reality of the city. They bring their humanity with them, dirtying the snow as they go, returning it to the brown of the city.
The happier initial tone of the poem reasserts itself and the speaker looks into the minds of the men. They are not as depressed as they usually are. The landscape is serving as a distraction that helps keep their minds, for a moment anyway, of their realities.