‘Hunters in the Snow’ by William Carlos Williams is a twenty-one-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Williams did not imbue this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme of rhythm. As was common in his work, there is no punctuation in the text. Rather than pauses created through the use of commas or semi-colons, Williams uses line breaks to separate sections.
Due to the fact that there is no punctuation, the line breaks become all the more important. Often times phrases are chopped in half, forcing a reader to move to the next line for an important conclusion or description. This is known as enjambment and a good example occurs between lines 11 and 12. Here a reader must jump down in order to know what the “inn yard is.”
Explore Hunters in the Snow
The poem begins with the speaker describing the ice mountains in the background. They are one of the first elements of the painting a viewer is drawn to. From there he moves forward to address the sturdy, but still tired, hunters. They are leading their dogs from the woods, down a snowy hill and back into town.
Alongside the hunters is an inn, the sign for which Williams expresses interest in. The yard holds a big fire and women tending it. From there he moves down into the valley to mention the silhouetted skaters. Then finally, the poem concludes with what Williams states is Brueghel’s final touch, the bush in the foreground.
You can read the full poem here.
Pieter Bruegal’s Hunters in the Snow
One of the most important aspects of ‘Hunters in the Snow’ is the fact that it was inspired by a painting of the same name by Pieter Brueghel. It is also commonly referred to as The Return of the Hunters, and was completed in 1565. Williams depicts in his poem the exact scenario playing in Breugel’s painting. There are three hunters in the bottom left corner, followed by dogs, returning to a town down the hill. The hunters do not seem to have been successful. From their body language they appear exhausted and are even half-heartedly following along a set of prints on the ground. These belong perhaps to a hare or other small creature they were unable to catch.
The landscape is covered by snow, but does not lack life. There are a number of people at the bottom of the hill, walking, skating and travelling across the frozen water. The tone of the poem is similar to the feelings one gets while observing the painting. The colors are muted and the figures are more like silhouettes than actual people. There is no warmth welcoming these hunters home.
Analysis of Hunters in the Snow
The over-all picture is winter
their pack the inn-sign
In the first section of ‘Hunters in the Snow’ Williams focuses on the “over-all picture.” These are the impressions receives first when glancing at the painting. Due to its prominence on the panel, the sky, “icy mountains” and everything else in the background commands a lot of attention. Although they are the largest, they are not the most important elements. They set the scene, as these first lines do, for the more important drama playing out in the bottom left-hand corner.
When a viewer looks to the left, as Williams did, they will see that the “hunt” is over. There are “sturdy hunters” leading in their pack of dogs from the cold. The men have survived another hunt, but were not successful. They don’t appear to be carrying any animals, and the dogs seem listless.
In the following lines, Williams zooms in even further, taking note of the “inn-sign.” This is where he believes the three are headed.
hanging from a
deserted but for a huge bonfire
The sign that Williams is focusing on above the hunters and slightly to the left. His description is fairly straightforward here. He notes that the inn has a yard at its front and that it is, “deserted but for a huge bonfire.”
In the panting, this is not necessarily true. There are women, who Williams recognizes in the next lines, tending the flames. This does raise the question of, what would the yard look like if it were not deserted? Is it more welcoming on a summer’s day? What would one find there?
that flares wind-driven tended by
the hill is a pattern of skaters
In lines 13 and 14, the speaker notes that there are women in the yard. It is their job to take care of the fire and make sure that it does not go out or grow too high as the wind “drive[s]” it on.
At this point, Williams’ description of the scene moves down the hill that is in the foreground and to the frozen pond. As stated previously, this body of water is playing host to a good many townspeople. Some are skating, playing sports, running, or falling. The scene below sits in stark contrast, at least in mood, to that of the hunters in the foreground. It is to these happy people that the hunters return, bearing what is likely bad news of their exploits.
Williams describes the skaters as nothing more than “patterns.” This speaks to the way that Bruegel depicted the men and women. They are not nearly as detailed as the hunters themselves. Their bodies are unrecognizable silhouettes, one person could not be picked out from the crowd at this distance.
Brueghel the painter
complete the picture
In the final lines, if one was not already aware, Williams reveals that it is a painting he has been describing. He speaks of how,
There was no detail too small for Brueghel to add to this work. His immense detailing was part of his recognizable style and can be seen to good effect in the other works created around this period. Especially those included in the series for which Hunters in the Snow was created.
The poem concludes with Williams drawing a reader’s attention back to the foreground where the painter added a “winter-struck bush” or a bush negatively impacted by the season. It was the final touch, or so Williams thinks, that finished the painting.