OUT OF MY window at the moment I can see a hesitancy of snowflakes in the garden. They look and move more like small white moths than snowflakes, rising and falling in the breeze. There aren’t many of them, thank heaven. It’s March already and still the winter, like a less-than-ideal guest (Cyril Connolly, for instance), can’t bring itself to leave.
We’ve had enough snow. It doesn’t take much in Britain. A day or two of it lying around on field, farm, housing estate and rooftops is sufficient for us to enjoy its transient beauty and to be reminded of childhood pleasures. More than that is an imposition.
However, one of my first instincts when the white stuff is settling is to think of it in various poems. There’s Hardy’s “Snow in the Suburbs”1 for instance, which I first encountered, I think, when at school. Its opening line, “Every branch big with it” has always stuck in my memory, the way good poems should, although it took a later re-reading to remind me of its tender and rather George Herbert-ish ending: “A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;/And we take him in.”
BACK IN ANCIENT Rome there’s Horace’s famous ode that starts with Mount Soracte standing deep in new snow and ends up in the Forum with some giggling girl. There’s also another poem (“Diffugere nives” – “the snows have fled”) celebrating the arrival of spring, reminding us how much we haven’t changed over the millennia. Again, I’m grateful for the much-reviled (by imbeciles, that is) grammar school education that introduced me to Latin, an activity deemed pointless the last two decades because lacking in “relevance” to the “skills” required in the modern world; pointless, maybe, if it doesn’t include lasting intellectual pleasure.
The other snow reference that springs to mind is from François Villon, that stunning medieval master of language. Killer, villain and jailbird, Villon writes poetry that is as simple and direct as it is untranslatable in its subtlety: “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” Where, indeed, are the snows of last year/last winter/yesterday/yesteryear/? And how can he make us feel so nostalgic by conjuring up that damned stuff? That’s the trick of it again – we’re all “freres humains”, brothers and sisters in the flesh who have felt snowflakes melt on our faces.
Snow in ancient Rome, in mediaeval France, in late nineteenth century Britain: it comes and it goes, as it did for them, and they wrote about it. And that’s the best place for it: in poems and in the memory.
- Thomas Hardy | Snow in the Suburbs
Every branch big with it
Bent every twig with it
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree, Whereupon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes.
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in. ↩