The Snow-Storm (1834-35)
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
A couple of weeks ago, The Kid’s English teacher assigned allowed each student to choose a poem to memorize and illustrate with a drawing. Two days ago, The Kid finally started to do the work (“She said we didn’t have to work on it over Thanksgiving break!”) As occurs on a regular basis, I am not clear on the intent of the homework. The most interesting part for The Kid was, of course, the artwork (“Who’s Ralph Waldo Emerson?” “I don’t know.”)
Many problems with this assignment:
1. Not ever having had to memorize anything “on purpose,” The Kid had no idea how to go about committing the poem to memory.
2. She also has the vocabulary of a very average 12-year-old, and the poem was written by a classically-trained 19th-century scholar (maugre? artificer? Parian wreaths?)
3. Probably shouldn’t even mention iambic or pentameter …
4. Or Transcendentalism …
I suppose the point of this exercise was about painting imagery with rhythm and words, and isn’t it amazing how poetry can achieve this! There are other poems the teacher could have used allowed that are all about the narrative and not the context. But context matters for the works of Emerson. He believed there was intelligence at work in nature, and human beings have the power to tap into that and determine for themselves their own understanding of truth; they can build their own individual worlds. Emerson’s writings, including this poem, reflected that belief. The teacher — who assured me that after 35 years of teaching she does indeed know better than to assign Emerson to a 7th grader — should have exercised that knowledge and directed The Kid to a more grade-appropriate poem chosen better.
The Kid crammed and crammed (“Do I have to go to school tomorrow?”), and finally asked her Dad for help. Just as she practices her (beginning) cello pieces from beginning to end without ever paying special attention to the difficult bits — as I sit here typing, I hear her making the same mistakes she has made the last 3 weeks on Deck the Halls and William Tell Overture — she was trying to recite the poem from beginning to end without paying attention to the rhythm of the words that form the images. It had never occurred to her to break down the poem into imagery blocks for memorization purposes … And today? Maugre all, she was very proud to report that the teacher gave her an A- for her work.
[After a brief exchange of emails, the teacher let me know she felt unjustly criticized, lectured at, and generally much maligned. I am now probably on the teaching group’s (s)hit list. So it goes.]