(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 that transforms the tiny and isolated world inside the house. The gathered family with warmed bodies and hearts and mugs of hot cider bask in the glow, “What matter how the night behaved?” Whittier the narrator then indulges in a reflection on the past-ness of the scene:“with so much gone; . . . The voices of that hearth are still.” His family is largely dead and gone, but “Life is ever lord of Death,/ And Love can never lose its own!” In the poem’s second part, stories are told to “sleepy listeners as they lay,” by father, mother, uncle, aunt, and elder sister, now lately gone to the “holy peace of Paradise,” and subject of a second reflective interlude. A schoolteacher and an annoyingly religious woman appear and share the warmth, which lasts until the fire crumbles to embers and ash. In the third part, teamsters arrive carving a public path, a doctor calls for help, and the poet’s once snowbound world gives way to the world at large, best encapsulated in the newspaper with its tales of war and “the pulse of life that round us beats.” Whittier ends in an elegiac postlude calling for a pause to reflect in the midst of the bustle of a changing world.