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Analysis of Poem 'Dust of Snow' by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost and a Summary of 'Dust of Snow'

'Dust of Snow' is only eight lines long and seems to be the simplest of short poems. With full end rhyme and short lines, on the surface the two stanzas appear to be nothing more than a snapshot of a trivial event concerning a crow, a tree, snow and a human being.

Yet, as always with Robert Frost, you know that beneath the surface there will develop deeper worlds of meaning and possibility. As Frost himself wrote:

'It is what is beyond that makes poetry - what is unsaid in any work of art. Its unsaid part is its best part.'

So it is with this tiny poem. The reader might take only 15 seconds to recite it, but once finished there could well be several hours spent on, or several ways of, working out what the message is, if any.

'Dust of Snow' has as its main themes:

  • communication between nature and humans
  • nature healing and helping with negative human emotions
  • the significance of small natural events

First published in 1923 in the book New Hampshire, this little poem has remained popular because it juxtaposes two fundamentals—human complexity and animal simplicity—in such a compact and symbolic form.

The other outstanding feature of 'Dust of Snow' is that it is so accessible, like many of Frost's more popular poems, the reader being taken under that same tree to experience the crow and the snow.

And yet, as the analysis will show, there's much more going on in what appear to be lines of simple, straightforward language.

'Dust of Snow' by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Analysis of 'Dust of Snow'

'Dust of Snow,' with its short neat form, rhyming lines and rhythmic beat, is simplicity itself. It reflects the rather bleak, minimalist imagery.

There's the speaker, the man, under a tree. It's probably winter, there's snow on the tree, an evergreen pine called a hemlock, and a crow has happened to send some snow dust down on the man.

Whether it falls on to his head or down his neck is unknown because it's not really relevant to the poem. What is important is the way that crow makes it happen, but once again, the reader is left to imagine the bird's specific action.

Whether it be the crow preening, merely shaking, flying off, or landing, or readjusting its feet on a branch, somehow a light dusting of snow is the result, and it lands on the speaker.

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The actual word is shook, so it could be that the crow is shivering in the snowy tree. For the speaker this must have come out of the blue; the crow's action caused an unexpected fall of snow dust.

  • The first stanza is the speaker setting the scene but leaving a little bit of guesswork for the reader. The question has to be asked: In what way precisely did that crow shake down the dust of snow?
  • In a comical way? In a mischievous way? In an indifferent way?

Each line runs into the next—enjambment—so giving the idea of build up which goes hand in hand with the rising iambic beat (see metrical analysis below).

So the first stanza flows into the second which is the more intimate part of the poem as the speaker begins to confirm a change of mood. The crow, traditionally given a bad name as a harbinger of doom and fear, becomes a catalyst for positive change.

The speaker, because of the snow dust falling on him, finds himself partially relieved - his day just got a whole lot better—the event somehow allowing him to see life from a different angle.

There are two crucial words Frost uses here: rued and saved, the former meaning to regret something which often cannot be undone and the latter meaning to rescue or keep safe.

The word saved is also associated with religion—being saved (by Christ)—for example, but this doesn't really fit the circumstances of the speaker. Why? Because only part of a day is saved, not his soul.

If the figurative heart changes mood then this is quite a profound shift nevertheless and it illustrates the power that nature sometimes has over we human beings.

The speaker could well have been stressed out over something, gone for a short walk to try and think things through. Then whilst under the tree . . . down came the dust of snow to alleviate the symptoms.

  • If anything there is a strong case for irony and comedy in this poem.
  • Picture the troubled speaker, all serious, self-absorbed, worrying about what had happened to him a few hours earlier.
  • Suddenly there is the crow flapping from a high branch; then down comes the freezing white dust to land straight on the poker-faced speaker.

And isn't it ironic that a creature usually linked with negative aspects of life should become the bringer of positive change?

The message is clear enough. Sometimes seemingly insignificant natural events do bring about change. Being outdoors in nature, with all its unpredictability, can benefit anyone, anywhere at anytime.

What Is the Meter of the Poem 'Dust of Snow'?

The dominant meter (metre in British English) of this poem is iambic dimeter, although there are two lines with anapaestic feet.

An iamb is a foot consisting of one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, so the beat is daDUM daDUM. An anapaest consists of two unstressed syllables plus a third stressed,dadaDUM—both iamb and anapaest bring rhythm and rising.

Let's take a closer look at each line of 'Dust of Snow':

The way / a crow
Shook down / on me
The dust /of snow
From a hem / lock tree

Has giv / en my heart
A change /of mood
And saved / some part
Of a day / I had rued.

The first stanza has three lines of iambic dimeter, four syllables, except the fourth line which has an anapaest first foot so has that dadaDUM beat. This opening anapaest is balanced by the anapaest of line five in the second stanza, much like an echo of a changed heart beat itself.

  • From a hem / lock tree . . . Has giv / en my heart (5 syllables in both lines)

The second stanza reverts to iambic dimeter in lines 6 and 7 before ending with a double anapaest, six syllables, in the final line.

This overall rising rhythm denotes an optimistic tone to the poem.

Poetic/Literary Devices: Rhyme, Alliteration, Assonance and Internal Rhyme

The full rhyme endings are quite straightforward: crow/snow . . . mood/rued . . . and tie things up tightly. Internal rhyme and other devices help bring texture and resonance to certain sounds, as well as interconnections.

Internal Rhyme and Assonance

Note that way echoes with day and in between come change and saved.

And shook and dust.

Also on/of/hemlock/Of


Has given my heart

And saved some part


© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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