Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
Understanding “First Snow in Alsace” begins by appreciating it as a war poem. The physical reminders of the war are few but vivid: shellbursts, fear-gutted homes, “soldiers dead a little while.” Wilbur seeks to illuminate the horror of war by focusing on a brief respite from those horrors, the simple peacefulness of an evening snowfall. He describes the snow with a puzzling abstraction as “absolute snow.” This phrase suggests the blanketing ubiquitousness of snow, the way it covers everything, even erases borders. It is as if the snow heals or covers over a wounded landscape.
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Such symbolic readings imply a judging observer, and Wilbur’s poem, which begins as an unpopulated natural scene, is peopled in interesting ways. The sudden “You think” of stanza five announces a move from physical description to human imagination. The dead soldiers introduced next are not literally within the range of the poet’s description; they are annexed by an act of thought, by the unifying force of the snow which falls on the dead and the living alike. Against this eerie image of the eyes of the recently dead, comes a sudden peopling of the scene with “Persons and persons in disguise.” While their disguise may suggest military camouflage, the context implies that it is the snow itself that transforms them within an altered landscape. That landscape and the fresh, white air stimulate the “shared surprise.”
Now among the living, the reader is reminded that first snows hold special significance for children, children still innocent enough to read the frosted windowpanes as the work of a sprightly Jack Frost. It is in this context that Wilbur introduces the night guard. This boyish guard has his memory stimulated by the snow and thinks “ten first-snows back” to when he was, perhaps, a boy of eight or ten encountering the season’s first snow fall with uncomplicated joy. His pride in being the first to see the snow actually warms him in the chilly landscape. The poem has moved from a wide-ranging descriptive vision to a focus on an individual character; its increasing warmth reflects that increasing intimacy.
Wilbur has subtly introduced familiar wartime themes in a fresh way. The gap between human pettiness and natural beauty, the youthful innocence of the combatants, the preciousness of a moment’s joy in a time of fear and despair—all these themes emerge from the precise but emotionally loaded description of “First Snow in Alsace.”
The poem traces the border between natural description and emotional tract, mingling the two in phrases such as “fear-gutted.” Wilbur uses attentive and detailed description to ground the poem and eschew the clichéd and sentimental. The vividness of the description of the snow and the deftly created character of the youthful guard reveal a landscape in which time and place are especially poignant: occupied France in World War II.