The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

Richard Wilbur’s “First Snow in Alsace” consists of eight three-line stanzas and a final line that completes the rhyme scheme. The poem describes the first snowfall of winter in Alsace, as the title indicates. Alsace is a region of eastern France frequently the subject of border disputes between France and...

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Richard Wilbur’s “First Snow in Alsace” consists of eight three-line stanzas and a final line that completes the rhyme scheme. The poem describes the first snowfall of winter in Alsace, as the title indicates. Alsace is a region of eastern France frequently the subject of border disputes between France and Germany. Alsace was ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War but restored to France after World War I. The area was occupied by Germany during most of World War II until French and U.S. troops recovered the territory for France in 1945. The references to “shellbursts,” gutted homes, and an ammunition pile make the time as clear as the place: This snowfall occurs in the midst of the hostilities of World War II. Wilbur served in Europe in the war, and he credits his war experiences with stimulating his career as a poet. Wilbur felt that only when one was faced with chaos did one discover the need for the ordering forces of art.

The first four stanzas vividly describe the beauty of the nighttime snowy scene, in which the evidence of war is transfigured by the delicacy of the snowfall. Stanza five places the reader in the poem, opening with “You think,” and speculating that the snow falls on the eyes of recently deceased soldiers still lying in fields. The next two stanzas describe “persons and persons in disguise” encountering the transformed landscape. Then the final stanza identifies a night guard returning from his post who cheerfully brags that “He was the first to see the snow.” His youthful innocence contrasts with the grave images of warfare as it reminds the reader that war is indeed fought by the young.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

The first part of this poem is highly descriptive and metaphorical. Wilbur uses a variety of figures of speech to evoke the snowy landscape. The falling snow is compared not simply to moths but to the unearthly image of “moths/ Burned on the moon.” The snow cover is evoked with the metaphorical “simple cloths,” a figure that is carried on with the adjective “rumpled.” A rich use of metaphor is appropriate for Wilbur’s emphasis on transformation: Just as metaphor expresses something in terms of what it is not, the snow transforms a grim, inhuman landscape into a vision of peaceful loveliness. Thus “the ration stacks are milky domes,” and the snow-bedecked ammunition pile appears as “sparkling combs.”

Wilbur personifies the snow to heighten the sense of it as an agent of transformation. Winter is personified as “benign,” and the frost is depicted as an artisan capable of delighting children. But the most complex personification occurs in stanza three, where the snow blankets the roofs of houses “as if it did not know they’d changed.” The change Wilbur refers to here is not the transformation of the snowfall but the change from peacetime to war which has left the homes “fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.” “Fear-gutted” suggests, but does not literally denote, houses gutted by bombardment. More generally, it suggests a humanity transformed by the terror of war into a state of estrangement and suspicion. Wilbur’s figurative language heightens a simple contrast between the world wrenched by the agonies of war and the natural events, like a first winter snowfall, that proceed unchecked, oblivious to the tortures humans inflict upon themselves.

Wilbur is a masterful versifier, using in his poetry a wide variety of traditional forms. Here he writes with a brisk iambic tetrameter and uses the terza rima made famous by Dante in The Divine Comedy. In this rhyme scheme, the first and last lines of each three-line stanza rhyme, while the second line initiates the rhyme of the next stanza: aba bcb and so on. This rhyme scheme creates a forward motion or march in which the energy of the next stanza grows out of the unresolved rhyme of the middle line of the preceding stanza. This motion may be appropriate to Wilbur’s voyage or march through a transformed military landscape. The dramatic last line, rhyming “snow” with “slow,” brings this forward progress to a halt.

Wilbur’s use of assonance and alliteration is subtle but noticeable. Repetition of “s” and “r” sounds combined with a medial slant rhyme leads to a particularly vivid presentation of the chaos of warfare: “What shellbursts scattered and deranged,/ Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.” The latter section of the poem is less figurative but denser in terms of sound. The serial rhyme words seem to echo one another as “mile” and “while” yield to “eyes,” “disguise,” and “surprise,” to be succeeded by “fine,” “benign,” and “designs” (which in turn are echoed by “shines” in mid-line). Following this mellifluous series of long “i” rhymes, Wilbur slows down the prosody with the walking guard. The first two lines of the last stanza begin with metrical variations, clustering stresses on “night guard” and “ten first-snows” and ending with the alliteration of “boyish boast.”

Wilbur uses strict poetic forms at a time when the dominant energies of modernist poetry tended toward free verse. While many poets felt that traditional forms did not fit the rhythms of modern life, Wilbur, throughout his poetic career, has used formal devices precisely to impose artistic order upon chaotic and fragmentary experiences. Dante’s terza rima was widely interpreted as a unifying poetic device, symbolically invoking the Holy Trinity. Wilbur’s more secular adaptation of the form still seeks to unify disparate and disturbing experiences in a sympathetic poetic vision.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

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