Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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The Cross Of Snow Summary

What is the main idea of "The Cross of Snow" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

The main idea of Longfellow's poem "The Cross of Snow" is that, though the poet's wife has been dead for many years, he will never forget her or cease to think of her as the best and purest of women.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's sonnet "The Cross of Snow" may be summarized as follows. The poet begins the octave by saying that he sees the face of his deceased wife in a vision during his long, sleepless nights, when the lamplight appears to give her a halo. She died in the bedroom where he now attempts to sleep, and the life that ended there was exceptionally pure and good. No martyr, no saint about whom one might read, ever lived a better or more blessed life than she did. These lines emphasize not only his wife's qualities but her suffering as she died.

In the sestet of the sonnet, the poet shifts the scene to a faraway mountain, on the side of which a cross of snow shines, defying the sun's warmth. He says that he wears a similar cross on his breast in memory of his wife, who died eighteen years ago. Though external circumstances change, his love for her has remained the same since the day she died.

The main idea of the poem, therefore, is the poet's unchanging love for his wife, whose goodness and purity he will never forget, however long she has been dead, and whatever else changes in his life. The central image of the cross of snow emphasizes both the Christlike suffering and the simple purity of the woman he remembers.

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"The Cross of Snow" by Longfellow is a touching tribute to Longfellow's wife, who died in a house fire. The poem, divided into four stanzas, compares his love for her to a "sun-defying" cross of snow on a mountain.

The first two stanzas memoralize his wife and cover how wonderful of a woman she was. Words like benedight, martydom, halo, and gentle reinforce the goodness of this woman. The poem also begins with, "In the long, sleepless watches of the night," setting up the grief that is still present in his life - he stays up at night thinking of her.  

The third stanza introduces the main idea with the image of the cross of snow. It tells of a mountain in the west that, despite the sun's rays, constantly displays a cross of snow in the ravines of the mountain. The fourth stanza completes the metaphor by explaining that his love for her is like the cross of snow; despite years and changing seasons, this love he feels continues, unchanging. This is the main idea of the poem; the love he feels for his wife will never change or falter, even in death, even in the passage of time.


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"The Cross of Snow" is an elegy. An elegy is a piece of writing, often a poem, or a song, whose purpose is to lament and mourn the dead.

In this poem Longfellow is mourning his wife, who died tragically after an ember from the chimney that was in the room where the couple rested accidentally caught her dress on fire, burning her terribly. Longfellow himself tried to aid his wife to no avail, and resulting in the permanent disfigurement of his face, which was often concealed by his long beard.  A death by fire is so horrifying that even in the dark ages those condemned to die by it would have committed the worse crime in order to get the worse punishment. Moreover, Mrs. Longfellow kept alive four days after her burning incident. Undoubtedly those must have been the most terrible four days in both hers and Longfellow's lives.

At the beginning of the poem, the winter atmosphere of coldness and isolation give the poem true Gothic qualities. The actual "cross of snow" that the poem refers to is the wooden cross build by Longfellow as a memorial to his wife.

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

He compares his wife to a martyr, for martyrs are also known for sacrificing their lives at the pillory. Her soul, he says, was noble enough to be considered a martyr in her own right. Her death was untimely, as death always is, but the particular cruelty of hers was entirely undeserving. This is basically what Longfellow says in this poem, which is one of the most heart-felt he has ever written.

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Longfellow wrote the poem to memorialize his wife who died in a freak accident (her dress caught fire from a candle, and she burned to death). The poem follows the structure of an Italian sonnet by discussing a topic, Longfellow's deceased wife, and then comparing it in the last lines to something else--the cross of snow.  In this sonnet, Longfellow uses the cross of snow in the mountainside to symbolize the scar of grief on his heart from his wife's death.  Just as the cross of snow remains on the mountain because of its deep crevices, the memory of Longfellow's wife remains permanently embossed in his mind and heart.

The last three lines of the sonnet,

"such is the cross I wear upon my breast / These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes / And seasons, changeless since the day she died."

demonstrate that even 18 years after his wife's death, the poet's grief has not lessened.


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