“Snow-Bound” is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that focuses on the life of a family living in New England during a raging snowstorm. The family is stuck in their home while the snow piles higher and higher outside, and while the storm rages, the family remains safe by the fire, telling stories to pass the time. The poem is a lengthy chronicle of the family’s life in the rural community, and Whittier’s intent appears to be to provide a mirror into a world that was quickly becoming outdated. It was published in the twentieth century, when life was changing rapidly. Industrialization was speeding up the pace of life and appeared to be obliterating the sentiments of the past, when families gathered together and shared stories of a simpler life in a simpler time.
With the era of simplicity rapidly dying, Whittier opened up that world for readers, offering them a glimpse of the comfort and peaceful communion of a family that weathered storms together and bonded during rough times. The poem idealizes the past and idealizes the rural lifestyle. The family, telling stories by the fire, represents the security of the past, while the snowstorm represents the harsh conditions of the outside world—not only of nature, but also of industrialized society.
Generally considered Whittier’s masterpiece, “Snow-Bound” is dedicated to “the Household It Describes” and prefaced by a quotation from the Renaissance occultist Cornelius Agrippa on the powers of sunlight and firelight over “Spirits of Darkness,” and a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm.” Whittier wrote this work of high nostalgia shortly after the death of his beloved sister, Elizabeth, who had long taken care of him. This carefully crafted genre piece opens with a long, elegiac description of a December day in New England and the chores performed on his boyhood farm. The east wind brings a heavy snowstorm that roars on through the long night. The sunless morning reveals a transformed landscape of unfamiliar shapes and contours, and the call of “our father” to the “boys” (Whittier and his brother) to cut a path from house to barn. Whittier evokes both the shriek of “the mindless wind” and the silence of the usually babbling brook now encased in ice. With the first night comes the fire...
(The entire section is 595 words.)