‘Snowdrop’ by Ted Hughes is a poem that uses juxtaposition and uncertainty to express the commotion that occurs at the end of life. What begins as a tale of a “shrunk” world and a “mouse” in peril becomes the story of a woman at the “ends” of life. There are elements that go unanswered in this poem, and these concepts only add to the overall impression of life’s “winter,” or death, since it is a confusing and chaotic concept in itself. There is no clear rhyme scheme or pattern to the lines, and this reinforces the confusion and chaos of death. From start to finish—from changing perspectives to mismatched words—Hughes depicts the grief, fear, confusion, and loneliness of death in a striking way within this poem. You can read the full poem here.
Lines 1 and 2
Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
This pairing of lines provides an interesting juxtaposition at the forefront of ‘Snowdrop’. With the beginning line, after all, Hughes speaks in a large context of “the globe.” This is not individual, but something that literally includes everything in the current world. As soon as that idea is addressed, however, Hughes shifts to consider one small creature: “the mouse.” There are a number of possible explanations for this juxtaposition, one being that “the globe” should be concerned with “the mouse,” even though it is small, which leads to a theme of compassion and awareness. However, another theme seems more likely, given the context of ‘Snowdrop’, and that theme involves the priority involved in life.
Specifically, “the globe” is “shrunk tight” by whatever is causing this “mouse” distress, but “the mouse” is only concerned with what is going on with its own condition. Perhaps such would not be the case if “the mouse” were not experiencing something so critically, like a “dull wintering heart.” Essentially, “the mouse” seems to be dying, and when in the harshness of that reality, little else matters beyond this detail.
There is also evidence about what is going on with “the globe” within these two lines in that the “heart” is “wintering.” Clearly, “the globe” is in the cold of “winter,” and “the mouse” is unable to endure it. The question then becomes why a “mouse” would not be able to withstand this particular cold, and it could simply be a case of the temperature and situation becoming too frigid and harsh for survival. It could also be, though, that this “winter” is a representation of “the mouse’s” life. Just as plants die in the “winter” of seasons, the “winter” could be viewed as the end of “the mouse’s” life.
Lines 3 to 6.5
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths.
The “weasel and crow” continue to thrive in this “winter” setting, but “[n]ot in their right minds” because of “the other deaths.” This could be a representation of the nature of grief since those who lose someone who passes away hurt in ways that could be labeled as “[n]ot [being] in their right minds.” In fact, they could feel numb and lifeless, “as if moulded in brass” and in “an outer darkness.” Obviously, these animals live, but they are impacted by the loss of life, even if it has only so far been noted as “the mouse’s” passing.
This could also be a representation of the separation of life and death. As a person moves into their “winter,” those who surround them might seem unreachable, like they’re “brass,” because the planes of existence are so different. This idea heads into a very existential territory, with the light of life growing “dark[er]” as the person passing on moves farther into “winter.”
Lines 6.5 to 8
She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.
These lines of ‘Snowdrop’ are the first time that Hughes shifts his commentary toward people, though ideas brought on by animals have already been noted as things that relate to the human condition. By mentioning them in detail, however, the reader can know that this detail could be the idea that Hughes intended to address all along—particularly since he waited until the end of ‘Snowdrop’ to get to this concept. Through this structure, he has slowly led the reader to the true moment of focus—this woman’s death—like life slowly led her to her “winter.”
There are a couple of elements in these lines that tangibly link them to the ideas of the previous lines. One is the “too” in the latter half of line 6 since that word entails a connection that she shares with what has come beforehand. Secondly, “[h]er pale head [is] heavy as metal,” and since the “weasel and crow” were connected to “brass,” this is a concrete link between the ideas.
The question then arises as to why this woman has a “head” that is “heavy as metal” if she is the one “pursu[ing] her ends” when the “weasel and crow” were the ones watching as “brass.” Perhaps this is an inclination that the division of life and death, as well as the numb and lost qualities of the process, are shared by both the parting and the grieving.
It could also be, though, that the woman is not actually the one dying since Hughes refers to “her ends,” rather than “her end.” It would seem that if she were the one approaching “winter,” there would only be one life that “ends.” By making the idea plural, Hughes could be saying that she is watching others pass, but she is so connected to these people that a part of “her ends” when they pass. This idea pairs well with the loneliness and numbness of “metal” and “brass,” but it is only conjecture. The uncertainty, however, could be another statement for the approach of death. Just as the reader cannot know who is approaching “winter”—perhaps one woman with an unstable enough mindset to confuse “end” for “ends,” or a number of people who take a part of her as they go.
Another interesting detail about these ending lines is in the “Brutal as the stars of this month” concept. As the Farmer’s Almanac notes,
It is perhaps a cruel twist of fate that, just when the night air turns coldest and the wind bites most sharply, the night sky is at its brightest, clearest, and most beautiful.
This is yet another juxtaposition brought into the story then, because, in the midst of death and decay, there is an incredible amount of light. This particular juxtaposition could indicate the human tendency to think about good memories more when the “winter” of life is so near. In this, a person approaching their “end” would see light in their past more vividly than what they had previously appreciated, but with hardly any time to tend to those ideas. That concept—realization with little opportunity—seems, in fact, “[b]rutal.”
Overall, ‘Snowdrop’ is a wonderful account of life’s passing, filled with compassion, pain, confusion, and devastation.
About Ted Hughes
Born in 1930, Ted Hughes was a British writer and a veteran of the Royal Air Force. In fact, his Yorkshire home often offered inspiration to his writing and poetry. He was also a student at Cambridge and the former husband of a fellow writer, Sylvia Plath, though her suicide (as well as the suicide of another girlfriend) tainted his career and reputation. Regardless, he remains a known name in poetry, even after his death in 1998.