John Greenleaf Whittier and "Snow-Bound"

Updated on April 4, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Greenleaf Whittier


Introduction and Excerpt from "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl"

John Greenleaf prefaced his long poem, "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," with three epigrams: the first offers the poem as a dedication to his family, the second features a quotation from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's Occult Philosophy, and the third offers an excerpt, the first stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, "The Snow Storm."

It is quite obvious that Emerson's poem served as a strong motivational influence upon Whittier, as he composed his much longer, "Snow-Bound." The Agrippa quotation opens the heart to the closeness and love generated in a family as it tries to stay warm during a difficult winter event.

The poem, which plays out in couplets, offers an enjoyable read. It will make readers glad that they are seated comfortably in a warm setting as they experience the "sheeted ghosts" of "the clothes-line posts" that seem to be peering in through the windows of the family's home as the snow piles higher and higher.

Because of the length of the poem (760 lines, 4804 words), I have excerpted only the first three stanzas along with the opening epigraphs. To read the entire poem, please visit "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" at the Poetry Foundation.

Excerpt from "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl"

To the Memory of the Household It Describes
This Poem is Dedicated by the Author

“As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits, which be Angels of Light, are augmented not only by the Divine light of the Sun, but also by our common Wood Fire: and as the Celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same.” —Cor. Agrippa, Occult Philosophy, Book v.

“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.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Snow Storm"

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east; we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore,
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.

Meanwhile we did our nightly chores,—
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd’s-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold’s pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the wingëd snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts. . . .

Continue reading at "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl"

Reading of "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl"


Have a cup of hot chocolate to keep you warm, while you enjoy Whittier’s description of all that snow.

"Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl"

Whittier is best known for his poem, "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," which depicts the activities of his family during a snow storm. The charm of the poem captivates the reader and shows the beauty that Whittier was able to relate.

This poet had faith and an inner vision that rendered him capable of dramatizing in a profound way the experiences of life. He saw everything as sparks from the Divine; he was able to portray the beauty and value in things and experiences that we often miss because of our basic insecurity and lack of faith or unwillingness to look for the good and the beautiful in nature and circumstances.

"Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" is a long poem of 760 lines. It was first published as a single volume in 1866, and it immediately became very popular. In his introduction, Whittier writes, “The inmates of the family at the Whittier homestead, who are referred to in the poem, were my father, mother, my brother and two sisters, and my uncle and aunt both unmarried. In addition, there was the district schoolmaster who boarded with us.”

Favorable Reviews

"Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" was greeted with many favorable reviews that focused on the simplicity and power of Whittier’s writing. The reviewer for The North American Review opined,

We are indebted again to Mr. Whittier, as we have been so often before, for a very real and very refined pleasure. It is true to nature and local coloring, pure in sentiment, quietly deep in feeling, and full of those simple touches that show the poetic eye and the trained hand.

This review eloquently captures the essence of "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl."

Contemporarily out of Favor with Postmodernists

Whittier’s works have fallen out of favor with contemporary poetry critics, scholars, and some readers who place too much undeserved value on shock and degradation; in other words, Whittier's spiritually oriented, positive attitude does not appeal to the postmodern mind-set.

And what a shame that is! Because reading "Snow-Bound" is such a pleasurable, as well as enlightening, experience. I highly recommend experiencing it with a cup of hot chocolate to keep yourself warm, while you enjoy Whittier’s brilliant and inspired description of all that snow.

John Greenleaf Whittier


Life Sketch of John Greenleaf Whittier

Born December 17, 1807 in Haverhill, Massachusetts, John Greenleaf Whittier became a crusader against slavery as well as a noted and celebrated poet. He enjoyed the works of Robert Burns and was inspired to emulate Burns.

At age nineteen, Whittier published his first poem in the Newburyport Free Press, edited by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Whittier and Garrison became life-long friends. Whittier’s early work reflected his love for the country life, including nature and family.

Founding Member of the Republican Party

Despite the pastoral and at times sentimental style of his early poetry, Whittier became an ardent abolitionist, publishing pamphlets against slavery. In 1835 he and fellow crusader George Thompson narrowly escaped with their lives, driving through a barrage of bullets while on a lecture campaign in Concord, New Hampshire.

Whittier served as a member of the legislature of Massachusetts from 1834–35; he also ran for the US Congress on the Liberty ticket in 1842 and was a founding member of the Republican Party in 1854.

The poet published steadily throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and after the Civil War devoted himself exclusively to his art. He was one of the founders of The Atlantic Monthly.

Questions & Answers

  • What does ominous mean in the poem "Snow-Bound"?

    The meaning of "ominous" in the poem retains its same meaning as when used anywhere else.

  • In the Whittier poem, “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," he is describing what it was at one point in time to be an American. Based on his poem, what was it like to be an American?

    Families were very close-knit and enjoyed one another's company; some families are still like that today.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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