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Snow-Flakes - Longfellow's Practical Guide to Grieving

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Snow-Flakes - Longfellow's Practical Guide to Grieving

"Snow-Flakes": Longfellow's Practical Guide to Grieving

Far from the hypersensitive spirit of popular legend, Longfellow was a practical, intelligent writer who used sentimental forms for pragmatic purposes. The poem "Snow-Flakes" is one of the best examples of this. Written in the wake of the sudden death of Longfellow's wife Fanny, and during the mayhem of the Civil War, "Snow-Flakes" instructs the reader in how to use the natural world to help him or her come to terms with grief. In doing so, Longfellow exposes the heuristic nature of Emersonian transcendence, revealing it to be not a mystic state of divine revelation, but rather a psychological process that, by naturalizing grief, helps bring the reader out of the psychological isolation imposed by grief.

The opening stanza describes the sudden onset of the winter's first storm; it arrives with trumpets blaring, but soon settles into the quiet business of blanketing the earth. This dual action serves Longfellow's purposes; it is because the storm both disturbs and isolates that it is able to move us out of the psychological isolation of grief:

Out of the bosom of the Air,

Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,

Over the woodlands brown and bare,

Over the harvest-fields forsaken,

Silent, and soft, and slow

Descends the snow. (351)

The first two lines are grandiose. Further, the trochees at the start of lines 1-4 momentarily throw the reader off balance. But metrically, the poem quickly softens. The first foot of lines 3 and 4, "Over," is more calm than the dramatic "Out of" in lines 1 and 2. Further, the cold, quiet, post-harvest landscape replaces the mysterious angel of the air. Over this landscape comes the insulating snow, "silent and soft."

The second stanza introduces "us" into the poem, placing both speaker and reader in the snowy landscape, and describes our psychological reaction to both the snowstorm and despair:

Even as our cloudy fancies take

Suddenly shape in some divine expression,

Even as the troubled heart doth make

In the white countenance confession,

The troubled sky reveals

The grief it feels. (351)

As we watch this snowstorm blow in, two things happen. First, our thoughts, our "cloudy fancies," crystallize in divine form. Second, we (under the guise of "the troubled heart") confess our troubles to the sky ("the white countenance"). In the act of confessing him or herself, the individual loses identity, merging self with confessor, nature. Just as the confessed Catholic becomes newly one with God and the Church, so too the confessed romantic becomes one again with Nature. Longfellow's diction here makes this

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