The Poem "London Snow" (1890) by Robert Bridges: An Analysis
A Snowy Night on Westminster Bridge, London
About the Poet Robert Bridges
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) was an English poet who, after his education at Eton College and Oxford University, trained as a doctor and worked in several London hospitals until 1882. He retired from the medical profession at the age of thirty-eight and from then lived a secluded family life, devoting his time to literature, writing, reviewing, and editing. He famously edited and published the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, his friend from university days, after Hopkins had suffered a premature death.
Bridges was the Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930.
London Snow by Robert Bridges (1890)
When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.
Synopsis of London Snow by Robert Bridges
The title the poem is explicit. What the reader is about to experience is an impression of snowfall in London.
The first line locates the poem in time and place - it tells us what happened and when; in a city (London, as we know from the title), there was an overnight snowfall. This was not a light sprinkling of snow: An image of a blizzard is immediately conjured by the choice of the word flying as an adverb to qualify the past tense verb came.
Snow blurs sharp lines and boundaries "making unevenness even". The use of the present perfect progressive tense for a large number of verbs (ending in ing) is notable - this tense suggests that something that started in the past continues in the present and may continue into the future. The snow is unstoppable.
The use of the adverb stealthily tends to personify the snow in the mind of the reader - the passage in its entirety is suggestive that the snow has a life and a purpose.
Lines 10-12 continue the idea of personification in that when the snow had reached a depth of seven inches it seems to have accomplished its objective and so "The clouds blew off" as if as a deliberate choice.
Lines 13-15 introduce the reader to the initial impact of the snow on the residents of the town. The unusual brightness of the morning caused them to wake earlier than usual to a "strange unheavenly glare". The choice of the adjective unheavenly is unusual - the glare of the snow is certainly the opposite of heavenly insofar as it is on the earth and therefore earthly, but there seem to be an implication that the snow is not a God-send.
Lines 16-19 describe the impact of the snow on the sounds of the town. Every sound has been muffled.
Lines 19-24 are about the impact of snow on touch, taste and sight, described in the reaction of schoolboys to the unusual phenomena; they catch ice-cold crystals on their tongues, make snowballs, dive into deep drifts and, gazing upwards, admire the effect that the snow has had on the trees.
Lines 25-27 describe the inconvenient effect of the snow upon carts transporting goods from the countryside. The loads have needed to be less heavy in order for those that have risked making a journey to "blunder" along deserted roads.
Lines 28-37 It is on line 29 that, through the reference to "Paul's high dome", that the only reference to London is made.The morning sunlight has triggered a thaw and the townspeople bestir themselves. They "wage war" with the challenges that the weather has made. Countless workers tread brown slushy paths through the snow. But even those normally thinking about their work and worries are this morning diverted by the beauty of what they see.
Line 29 of London Snow - "Standing by Paul's high dome ... "
Robert Seymour Bridges
Form of the Poem London Snow by Robert Bridges
Bridges was a classicist. He rejected contemporary trends and modernism in poetry in favour of a more accessible, readily understood, style that is apparent in the lovely poem, London Snow.
- The poem is presented as a single stanza of thirty-seven lines. The effect that this produces is one of a self-contained unbroken chain of events, started by snowfall that persists through the night.
- There are three end stops in the poem - at lines 9, 24 and 30 (plus the final stop at line 37). The stops indicate a brief pause in the narrative.
- By enjambing across the points where some poets might have chosen to create stanza breaks, Bridges has created a flow through the poem, mirroring the unremitting, lengthy, snowstorm.
- The length of the lines ranges from eleven syllables to seventeen syllables and the metre is irregular, creating a poem with a rhythm that resembles the rhythm of speech.
The Rhyming Scheme of London Snow by Robert Bridges
The poem, which might at first reading appear to be an adaptation of free verse, actually has a sophisticated pattern of full and part end rhymes, as follows: -
Lines 1-4 ABAB
Lines 5-6 CB
Lines 7-10 CDCD
.Lines 11-12 ED
Lines 13-16 EFEF
Lines 17-18 GF
Lines 19-22 GHGH
Lines 23-24 IH
Lines 25-28 IJIJ
Lines 29-30 KJ
Lines 31-34 KLKL
Lines 35-37 MLM
Imagery in London Snow by Robert Bridges
Poetic imagery is used to de-familiarise the familiar/ to familiarise the reader with unusual phenomena. In London Snow, Bridges both de-familiarises London streets ("the city brown" has become white) with an acute observation of the action and transformational effect of snowfall. He familiarises the reader with the phenomenon of snow, which is infrequent enough in the South of England to cause a frisson of wonder and excitement ("The eye marvelled- marvelled at the dazzling whiteness").
The poem addresses four of the five human senses - vision, hearing, taste and touch, and employs a restrained use of metaphor. The reader is introduced to the sight of a protracted fall of snow unremittingly floating town to cloak the City and muffle the usual noises. The ear unusually 'listens' to stillness - an oxymoron. Schoolboys put out their tongues to catch snowflakes, metaphorically described as manna (.ie. food from Heaven), and make snowballs, freezing their tongues and hands. The snow lying on the ground is "white-mossed wonder"
Alliteration in London Snow by Robert Bridges
There is a great deal of alliteration in London Snow.
Note: Alliteration is the repeated use of a letter or a syllable, usually, not always, at the start of a word.
Example: Lines 1-15
Note, for example, the sibilant letter s, which slows the pace - asleep, snow, stealthily, settling, Silently sifting
The ing suffix is used repeatedly to form the present perfect progressive tense of verbs describing the movement and effect of snow - flying, falling, lying, Hushing, Deadening, muffling, stifling, failing, floating, sifting, veiling, Hiding, drifting and sailing.
Note - Present perfect progressive tense describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present and may continue into the future.
What is a Poet Laureate?
The British Poet Laureate is an honorary role, nowadays awarded by the reigning monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister after appropriate consultation. There are no specific responsibilities but there is an expectation that an incumbent poet laureate will write poems to mark significant national occasions. If you enjoyed reading London Snow and would like to read more poems by Robert Bridges, a former Poet Laureate, I recommend this collection of his works.
The origins of the laureateship date back to 1616, when a pension was provided to Ben Johnson by the reigning monarch, King James I.
Each poet laureate is awarded a modest annual honorarium. The tradition of also providing a barrel of sherry continues to the present day.
Creative Writing, A Workbook with Readings, Part 3. Herbert W.N., Routledge in association with the Open University (2006), Abingdon, Oxon, UK
© 2017 GlenR