Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Although John Greenleaf Whittier called Snow-Bound an “idyl,” the term is not accurate in the sense of what that word means in classical literature. The poem centers on an admiring and pleasant depiction of simple country life, in the tradition of the pastoral, but it does not present that view of rustic life from a detached, aristocratic viewpoint. Rather, the speaker’s perspective remains rooted in the values of the community he portrays, even as he acknowledges that the persons and scenes he describes are gone. Similarly, the poem’s character as a pastoral elegy is qualified by the speaker’s hope. Nostalgia for a former way of life pervades the poem, but the future, in particular the future after abolition of slavery, is imagined as a bright improvement on the past. Two major themes related to this optimistic mood figure in the poem. One of these is the image of an inner light encircled by darkness, and the other is a sense of continuity with the past.

The image of a circle of light within a dark surrounding ground recurs throughout the poem, as the speaker describes the family sitting around the household fire in the middle of winter darkness. The external darkness and the metamorphosis of the landscape under the heavy blanket of snow draw the family closer together. Their sense of fellowship and appreciation for one another grows as they form more intimate relationships through the stories they tell of their lives and experiences. A time of enforced inactivity and of restricted movement becomes an opportunity for reflection, insight, and enlightenment.

Whittier’s conceptualization of the snowbound home as a place of spiritual and emotional enlightenment and of warmth and light in a dark world is in keeping with his Quaker background and his dedication to Quaker principles of nonaggressiveness, cooperation, and respect for the individual. Quakerism places great stress on individual enlightenment achieved through a process of meditation and reflection. Each person’s inner light of understanding is respected and is sought as an island of light would be in a sea of darkness. The poet’s lifelong, impassioned outcry in the cause of the abolition of slavery erupts in the last quarter of the poem: Slavery’s degradation of black and white alike will be followed by an almost utopian...

(The entire section is 952 words.)