Higher Living Reflections

A Winter Idyll

I love winter, most times. It can be a fun, magical time. I love snow, most times. A white blanket undisturbed by human footprints can fill the soul with wonder. I love the wind, most times. It can be refreshing, exhilarating, and bracing. Of course, it’s another story when the two mix and create a blizzard, which can create havoc especially for travelers. But then, a blizzard is not always ominous. It can work magic and launch and sequester us into an alternative universe.

In “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll,” John Greenleaf Whittier takes us to that alternative universe, which in his day was not an alternative reality but an occasional interlude in life. The poem is a beautifully written wondrous bucolic paean to stillness, solitude, and gratitude. In it, Whittier recounts a time when as a boy his family and a couple others hunkered down during a powerful blizzard that swept over them and brought daily routine to a halt.

“Snow-Bound” is a narrative rather than lyrical poem even though it sings to the simple life of a past never to return. It tells a story. The details of the setting and descriptions of the characters and their actions make the reader feel warm and present. Even though few of us today would be tough enough to survive, neither physically nor mentally, in that time and environment, we can identify with it.

The setting is in an early nineteenth-century New England farmhouse long before radio, television, or computers, which means no channel surfing, artificial means of entertainment, or instantaneous news updates and weather forecasts. The characters are what we now call “sheltered in place” with their pets, huddled around a crackling fire that staves off the harsh bitter cold. Their entertainment to wile the time away consists of a few reading pieces and stories told by the clan’s elders. Besides their voices, the only sounds are the snapping and crackling of the logs and the howl of the wind that sifted snow through the cracks of the cabin log walls.  

The poem focuses on family, in this case extended, and community with a non-family member having a place of honor in the gathering. By identifying with the Whittier family, we are grateful for and admiring of their resilience and toughness because we have been and must continue to be resilient and tough in our own ways.

By our caring for and identifying with the characters, it reminds us of our common humanity. It’s the same reason we cheer when we hear of or observe our fellow humans come out of a ramshackle building that collapsed during an earthquake. It gives us hope even as it also reminds us of our vulnerability and frailty in the face of Nature’s power. Despite our intellectual brilliance and ingenuity in buttressing ourselves against cataclysmic natural events, in the end Nature wins. We’re at her mercy. We bundle up when it’s cold, hunker down during a raging blizzard, lock ourselves in an underground cellar when a tornado swirls through, and climb to higher ground when a flood cascades and rips through a canyon.

It is interesting to note that idle, the homophone of idyll, does not share the same etymology. Idle comes from Middle English idel, which correlates to the Old High German ītal, meaning “worthless.” It implies that when people are idle, they are contemptible, morally depraved because after all, according to that inane, pompous, overbearing philosophy, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.

Idle hands can serve a positive purpose. They can allow the mind to marvel, wonder, and daydream much as we did as children.

To that end, take a break the next time you’re snowbound. Turn off the noise, nestle back with a warm cup of chocolate or tea and time travel to rural early nineteenth-century New England by reading “Snow-Bound.” Then, if you can and are blessed with Ullr’s bounty, go outside and rearrange the snow with your shovel or plow so that the wind can work its magic anew and re-sculpt it in another eye-catching mold.

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  • Cat
    January 17, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Thoughtful, evocative, Jerry, thanks!

  • Bonnie McCune
    January 17, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    Never knew about this poem. I’ve downloaded it to read. Thanks.

  • Laurel McHargue
    January 17, 2022 at 4:20 pm

    Wow! I think this poem would be considered a novella by today’s standards! And you’re right. Most of us wouldn’t know how to survive. We’ve become soft, I fear, and Ma Nature will have no sympathy for us.

  • Kathy Taylor
    January 18, 2022 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of this poem and for your beautiful musings around it. Even when such storms get in our way and wreck our plans, I love the way a blizzard wraps us into our selves and others, leaving a fresh white page around us to begin a new story or perhaps even rewrite old ones.