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The First Snowfall by James Russell Lowell

“The First Snowfall” is a somber and heart-wrenching poem about the death of the poet’s first daughter. The poet James Russell Lowell was moved by the death of his daughter Blanche who lived only fifteen months. Once he wrote that he thought “of my razors and my throat and that I am a fool and a coward not to end it all at once.” Such was the pain not only of his daughter’s death but also all her children who could not live past infancy except Mabel, his second daughter. For a father, the pain of his children’s death cannot be expressed through words. The heart becomes numb and all the senses harden like the frost. But, through this piece, Lowell somehow tried to express his unspoken words originating from the deep-plunged sorrows of his heart.

The First Snowfall by James Russell Lowell


Summary

“The First Snowfall” is a heart-touching poem about the snowfall that reminds the poet of her little daughter’s grave. The poem begins from the point when the snowfall first started on that particular day. It began at the gloaming or twilight and lasted throughout the night. Lowell captures how the snow embraced everything that he witnessed. From the trees to the ground, everything turned white. The muted sound of chanticleer and swans came from a distance.

Suddenly, Lowell’s daughter Mabel asked him who made it snow. In reply, he told his daughter of the God who was responsible for the snowfall. Then again the poet zooms out and observes the snow-covered surroundings. He visualized how the snow heaped over his daughter’s grave.

In the last few lines, the poet told Mabel that the snow muted everything and it was God that could make it fall. After saying this, he kissed her dear daughter with eyes closed in deep sorrow. The little girl was unaware of the fact that her father actually kissed her departed daughter by visualizing her visage in his mind.

Meaning

The title of the poem is a metaphorical reference to the first snowfall after Lowell’s first daughter’s demise. He metaphorically connects the idea of snowfall with death. In the ninth stanza, Lowell writes, “The snow that husheth all.” The snowfall makes everything silent. Likewise, death has the ability to make everything silent. Through the title of this piece, Lowell implies the death of his first daughter. He talks about the year (1847) and its first snowfall when he lost his dear child.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Lowell’s “The First Snowfall” consists of ten quatrains. The poet uses the ballad stanza form in this piece. Each stanza deals with a specific idea. As a reader progresses to the end, the sorrow of the speaker increases. The same can be applied to the mood of the overall piece. The poem has a specific sound pattern that adds to its lyrical effect. It is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker or the poet himself. Thus it is an example of a lyric poem.

Rhyme Scheme

As the poem is written by using the ballad stanza form, it contains a specific rhyme scheme. Each stanza contains the ABCB rhyming pattern that is followed throughout the poem. For example:

The snow had begun in the gloaming,

   And busily all the night

Had been heaping field and highway

   With a silence deep and white.

In the first stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme together. While the rest of the lines do not rhyme. This interlocking pattern makes each stanza sound complete.

Meter

This piece is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively. It means each line either has four iambs or three iambs. Iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There are a few metrical variations that appear frequently. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first two stanzas. It will give readers an idea of the overall metrical pattern of the poem.

The snow/ had be/-gun in/ the gloam/-ing,

   And bu-/si-ly all/ the night

Had/ been heap/-ing field/ and high-way

   With/ a si-/lence deep/ and white.

Eve-/ry pine/ and fir/ and hem-lock

   Wore er/-mine too/ dear for/ an earl,

And/ the poor/-est twig/ on the/ elm-tree

   Was ridged/ inch deep/ with pearl.


Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Lowell uses the following literary devices in this poem.

Enjambment

It occurs throughout this piece. In each stanza, Lowell uses this device to internally connect the lines and make one reader quickly go through the lines to grasp the idea. For example, in the first stanza, the lines are enjambed that serve the mentioned purpose.

The snow had begun in the gloaming,

   And busily all the night

Had been heaping field and highway

   With a silence deep and white.

In this way, the lines of the first stanza form a single line that refers to the effect of snowfall on nature.

Polysyndeton

It occurs in “Every pine and fir and hemlock”. Here, the word “and” is used twice to achieve an artistic effect. It is meant for emphasizing the names of the trees mentioned in the line. For the usage of the device, this line refers to the fact that all the trees including pine, fir, and hemlock were covered with snow.

Metaphor

The title of the poem contains a metaphor. It implicitly refers to the death of the poet’s first daughter. In the line “Was ridged inch deep with pearl,” Lowell compares the snow to pearls.

 

Personification

Personification is a poetic device using which a poet invests an inanimate object with human attributes. It occurs in the following lines:

  • “The snow had begun in the gloaming,/ And busily all the night/ Had been heaping field and highway” (Here, the snow is personified.)
  • “Every pine and fir and hemlock/ Wore ermine too dear for an earl” (Here, Lowell invests the tree with the idea of wearing clothes.)
  • “And the poorest twig on the elm-tree” (Here, the smallest twig is compared to a poor or unfortunate child.)
  • “How the flakes were folding it gently” (Here, the snowflakes are personified and it is compared to a mother.)


Alliteration

The repetition of similar sounds that are meant for creating internal rhyming can be found in the following examples:

  • Carrara/ Came”
  • flakes were folding”
  • heaped so high”
  • Flake by flake”
  • healing and hiding”


Simile

Readers can find the use of simile in:

  • “And the sudden flurries of snow-birds,/ Like brown leaves whirling by.”
  • “How the flakes were folding it gently,/ As did robins the babes in the wood.”

In the first example, Lowell compares the movement of snowbirds to the brown leaves whirling by.

The second example presents a comparison between the snowflakes and the robins. Here, the poet depicts how the snowflakes formed layers upon his daughter’s grave. He compares this process to the way robins care for their little ones in winter.

Allusion

There is an allusion to God in this line “And I told of the good All-father”. Here, the “All-father” means the father of all the creatures, meaning God.

Rhetorical Exclamation

There is a rhetorical exclamation in the line “Alone can make it fall!” This line shows how God hushes us all with particular emphasis on his daughter’s death.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza One

The snow had begun in the gloaming,

   And busily all the night

Had been heaping field and highway

   With a silence deep and white.

In the first stanza of “The First Snowfall”, Lowell describes the impact of snowfall on nature. He begins this piece by referring to the time when the snow started. It started in the gloaming or twilight. Then it kept on falling all night.

As a result, the surroundings were covered with snow, from the fields to the highways. There was a deep silence. Lowell interestingly compares the silence to the color “white”. This color conveys peace. So, it is a reference to the complete peace that existed in nature during the snowfall.

The last line expresses some of the deeper emotions of the speaker. Something was going on in his mind but he did not reveal it. From the words, “silence” and “deep” it is clear that he was suffering from mental pain. The snow itself kept him reminding of a painful incident that happened with him recently. Readers have to dive into the following answer to get to know the reason of the speaker’s somber tone.

Stanza Two

Every pine and fir and hemlock

   Wore ermine too dear for an earl,

And the poorest twig on the elm-tree

   Was ridged inch deep with pearl.

The second stanza begins with the use of polysyndeton. It is used to depict that the snow laid on everything that the speaker saw from his window. He mentions a few names of the trees that were there such as pine, fir, and hemlock. Looking at them, it seemed to him as if they were wearing ermine or white coats like an English earl. Earl means an English nobleman.

Suddenly, a little twig captured his attention. It reminded him of someone whom he loved the most. The twig of the elm tree was ridged with snow. Lowell metaphorically compares the snow to pearl. It seems that the elm-twig reflected his dearest one’s face. The person he missed and the twig had something in common; both were burdened with snow.

Stanza Three

From sheds new-roofed with Carrara

   Came Chanticleer’s muffled crow,

The stiff rails were softened to swan’s-down,

   And still fluttered down the snow.

The speaker zoomed out and looked somewhere else to unburden his mind. He saw the sheds covered with snow. The poet uses the term “Carrara”, which means white marble. So, the sheds looked as if they were covered with white Carrara marbles.

At one point, he heard a chanticleer crowing. For the snowfall, the sound it made was muffled or muted. “Chanticleer” refers to a rooster commonly appearing as an anthropomorphized character in Medieval fables.

The sound of snow was muted by the fluttering swans. Lowell describes the snowfall’s sound as “stiff rails”. There was stiffness or hardness in this sound as the speaker was internally sad, thus it had such an impression on his mind. However, the snow kept fluttering down fuelling his heartache.

Stanza Four

I stood and watched by the window

   The noiseless work of the sky,

And the sudden flurries of snow-birds,

   Like brown leaves whirling by.

The poetic persona stood by the window and kept watching the snowfall. He was nostalgic and sad. Some words were buried in his mind, some feelings of pain remained unexpressed. In such a mental state, with a heavy mind, he watched how the snow came down slowly yet gradually from the noiseless sky. Here, the “sky” can be compared to the speaker’s heavy mind that was silent yet drops of tears came down like snowflakes.

The sudden flurries made by the snowbirds’ quick movement disturbed the tranquil falling of snow. It seemed like a gust of wind whirling the brown leaves from one place to another. The comparison shows the poet’s keen sense of observing nature.

Stanza Five

I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn

   Where a little headstone stood;

How the flakes were folding it gently,

   As did robins the babes in the wood.

In the fifth stanza of “The First Snowfall”, the poet talks about the reason for his grief for the first time. He refers to a “mound”, a metonym for a grave, in the sweet hills of Auburn. It was the same place where the poet was buried after his death. There was a little headstone of his first daughter Blanche.

He visualized the snowflakes as a mother softly folding snow on his daughter’s grave. The working of snowflakes is compared to the mother robins which warmed their little ones during winter. He thought as if mother nature was lulling her daughter to sleep. To keep her warm, she laid the sheet of snow on her grave.

Stanza Six

Up spoke our own little Mabel,

   Saying, “Father, who makes it snow?”

And I told of the good All-father

   Who cares for us here below.

Till this point, it was not clear whether the poet was all alone or there was someone with him. But, after reading this stanza, it becomes clear that his other daughter Mabel was there with him. She was probably one year old at that time. With her innocent voice, she asked her father who made it snow. In reply, the poet told her about God, referring to him as the “good All-father”. He makes it snow as he cares for all of us.

The speaker could not tell his daughter about the deep-buried pain of his heart that aroused after watching the snow. He did not want to make his daughter feel sad after watching the snow. That’s why he told her about the positive side of this natural event.

Stanza Seven

Again I looked at the snow-fall,

   And thought of the leaden sky

That arched o’er our first great sorrow,

   When that mound was heaped so high.

The speaker’s mind was not at the place where he was. He was engrossed with the thoughts of the Auburn and his daughter’s grave. So, he looked at the snowfall and the sky again. The leaden or gloomy sky arched over their first great sorrow. The phrase “our first great sorrow” is a reference to the grave of his first daughter. It was the same sky that arched over the mound heaped high with snow.

The third line of this stanza clarifies what was the dominant emotion of his mind. He was extremely sad and burdened with the pain of his daughter’s unfortunate death. In his imagination, her grave was crystal clear that reminded him of his daughter’s innocent face.

Stanza Eight

I remembered the gradual patience

   That fell from that cloud-like snow,

Flake by flake, healing and hiding

   The scar of our deep-plunged woe.

In the first line of this stanza, Lowell uses synecdoche. The phrase “gradual patience” is an abstract idea that is used to refer to a concrete idea. Here, the snowfall is described as “gradual patience”.

In the following line, Lowell uses a simile to compare the snow to a cloud. For the poet, the cloudy snow reflected patience and slowness. He thought about the flakes that fell gradually on his daughter’s grave.

Besides, the snow has a dual property. Its peaceful white color can heal a person in distress. At the same, it helps to hide the scars of one’s “deep-plunged woe”. In the quoted phrase, Lowell personifies woe as a creature that has plunged deep into one’s heart. The scars of losing one’s loved one remain buried inside. When the snow falls, it metaphorically hides his pain.

Stanza Nine

And again to the child I whispered,

   “The snow that husheth all,

Darling, the merciful Father

   Alone can make it fall!”

In the ninth stanza, the poet whispered to his child by clarifying what he had told her. His voice was low. He only whispered. It reveals his mental state. He was in so much pain that his utterance was inaudible. Still, he told her little girl that the snow made everything silent. Here, the “snow” acts as a symbol of death.

Furthermore, he added that the merciful “Father” of all is the only being who can make it fall, nobody else. Readers have to focus on the rhetorical exclamation. Why does the poet use such an exclamation?

He tries to convey his disappointment and grudge with what God did to his daughter. He refers to how cruel God is. God is the only person who can determine when one is going to die. Then why couldn’t He save his little daughter who could not even live past her infancy?

Stanza Ten

Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her;

   And she, kissing back, could not know

That my kiss was given to her sister,

   Folded close under deepening snow.

However, he knew that his daughter’s death could not be undone. All he could do was close his eyes in extreme sorrow. He kissed his daughter with him. But, he badly wanted to kiss his Blanche who was no more.

Whatsoever, Mabel could not know that his father did not mean to kiss him. He badly wanted to have both of his daughters on his lap and kiss them with all his heart. So, he tried to imagine Blanche’s face and kissed them both.

In the last line, Lowell describes her grave as “folded close under deepening snow.” It means mother nature folded her in the comfort of the deepening snow. Here, “snow” is paradoxically portrayed as a sheet that gave comfort to his daughter in the cold.

Themes

Lowell’s poem “The First Snowfall” taps on the themes of death, sorrow, beauty, and innocence of nature, and the father-daughter relationship. The main theme of this piece is death. This theme is showcased by depicting snowfall as a phenomenon that silences everything. Besides, the impact of the snowfall on the surroundings reflects the effect of death on human beings.

Another important theme of this poem is sorrow. This theme is portrayed by the mental state of the speaker. The way he looked at the snowfall with a blank and silent look implies how sad he was. Through the depiction of nature and the description of the workings of the snow on the surroundings, Lowell adds the essence of romanticism in the text. His keen sense for appreciating the cold and silent beauty of winter is what makes the poem dearer to readers.

The theme of the father-daughter relationship is present in the fifth, sixth, ninth, and tenth stanzas. From the conversation of the poet with his daughter, it becomes clear how he loves both of his daughters. Alongside that, the poet’s yearning to have his deceased daughter with him is revealed by this piece.

Symbolism

Lowell uses a few symbols to convey some connected ideas. For example, the “snow” is portrayed as a symbol of death. According to the speaker, snow has the ability to hush every living creature. God can make it snow. Likewise, death is something that is controlled by Him only. In this way, the poet fuses the idea of death to snowfall. Besides, he also uses this symbol to describe the emotions of silence, pain, and sorrow.

In the text, there are some other symbols that refer to different ideas. For example, the elm-twig is symbolically compared to the poet’s first daughter whose grave was buried under snow. Apart from that, the “mound” that refers to the idea of a grave, interestingly, becomes a symbol of his daughter’s resting place. It is portrayed as a bed where she sleeps eternally, amidst the lap of mother nature.

Tone & Mood

The tone of the poem “The First Snowfall” remains somber, sorrowful, emotive, and sad throughout. In the first few lines, Lowell describes how serene and beautiful nature looked after the snowfall. It made everything silent and peaceful. In these lines, the tone reflects the subject matter. While the mood remains a bit depressing and sad.

From the fifth stanza, Lowell starts talking about the demise of his daughter and his sadness. In these stanzas, the tone becomes depressing and sorrowful. The mood of this section resembles the mental state of a father who has lost his infant child. The burden of pain and the coldness of the heart are present in the tone and mood of this piece.

Imagery

Lowell makes use of different types of imagery in this poem. Let’s have a look at each type:

  • Visual Imagery: The images visually depicting the effect of snowfall on the surroundings can be found in: “Had been heaping field and highway”, “Every pine and fir and hemlock/ Wore ermine too dear for an earl”, “From sheds new-roofed with Carrara”, etc.
  • Organic Imagery: In the seventh stanza, Lowell describes the impact of the leaden sky on his mind. The image also makes readers sad as it reminds them of his “deep-plunged woes”.
  • Auditory Imagery: The images related to the sense of hearing can be found in the following line: “And the sudden flurries of snow-birds/ Like brown leaves whirling by.”
  • Tactile Imagery: In the last stanza, the poet talks about kissing his daughter. Here, he uses tactile imagery to convey the feeling of a father who kisses his dear child.


Historical Context

James Russell Lowell wrote “The First Snowfall” in 1847 affected by the loss of his first child Blanche. She was born on December 31, 1845, and lived only fifteen months. Lowell had four children among them only his daughter Mabel survived past her infancy. She was born in 1847 in the same year he wrote the poem remembering her deceased daughter. Besides, his other daughter Rose survived only a few months after his birth in 1849. While his only son Walter was born in 1850. He also died after two years. So, the pain of losing three children who did not even live past their childhood was heavy on Lowell’s mind. He even thought of killing himself.

FAQs

What is the poem “The First Snowfall” about?

This poem is about the death of Lowell’s first daughter and how the snowfall kept him reminding of his daughter. Throughout this piece, he contemplates nature and its peaceful beauty that embalms his sorrowful heart.

Why was “The First Snowfall” written?

It was written in 1847 after the death of Blanche, Lowell’s first daughter. She was born on 31 December 1845 and lived only fifteen months. So, the pain of losing his daughter was fresh in his mind. In the year of his daughter’s death, the first snowfall reminded him of his daughter. Through this poem, Lowell conveys how he felt on that day.

What does “The First Snowfall” represent?

The title of this piece is a symbol of the poet’s daughter’s death. Here, the “snow” refers to death. So, through the title of this piece, Lowell refers to the first-ever snowfall of the year when he lost his daughter.

Who is Mabel in the first snowfall?

Mabel was the second daughter of the poet. Among his four children, only she survived past infancy.

What happened to Mabel’s sister and where is she now?

Mabel’s sister Blanche died at the age of merely fifteen months. She is now lying in the grave situated at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

What does the speaker’s daughter ask him in “The First Snowfall”?

The speaker’s daughter asked him to tell her about the person who made it snow.

What does the speaker’s daughter not know when he kisses her?

The speaker’s daughter does not know that his father is actually kissing his deceased sister.

Who is the speaker in “The First Snowfall”?

The speaker of this piece is none other than the poet James Russell Lowell. He describes his feelings and conveys his thoughts from the first-person point of view.

When that mound was heaped so high?

On the first-ever snowfall of the year, Blanche’s grave was heaped so high.

How is nature used in “The First Snowfall”?

Lowell uses nature in two ways. Firstly, he portrays it as a source of peace and beauty. He also depicts nature as a mother lulling her deceased daughter to sleep. Throughout the poem, Lowell describes the beauty and innocence of nature by using vivid imagery of the snowfall and its impact.

Which words does Lowell use to describe the effect of snow in “The First Snowfall”?

Lowell uses the words “heaping”, “deep”, “white”, “ermine”, “pearl”, and “Carrara” to describe the effect of snow in the poem.

What does the snowfall make the speaker think of? Why do you think it makes him think of this?

The snowfall makes the speaker think of his daughter who died recently. From these lines “That arched o’er our first great sorrow,/ When that mound was heaped so high” it becomes clear that the speaker is thinking of his deceased daughter.

Why was the speaker feeling reflective and sad in “The First Snowfall”?

In this poem, the snowfall made the speaker feel reflective and sad. It is because in the same year he had lost his first daughter. When he looked at the impact of snow on nature, it reminded him of his daughter’s grave.

How does the speaker use figurative language to describe the flake of snow in the first stanza?

In the first stanza, the poet uses enjambment to describe how the flakes of snow heaped the field and highway. He personifies the snow with the ability to heap something onto another. In the last line, he metaphorically connects the idea of silence with the color white.


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