Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thomas Hardy's "Snow in the Suburbs"

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Snow in the Suburbs

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Notes for reading and discussion

The first thing is just to read the poem aloud, which may take a few tries (after a silent read) because it can be a little bit of a tongue twister. If there is someone in the class who especially likes language, they might give it a try, reading slowly and carefully and enunciating each word, even exaggerating the rhythm somewhat – you can almost tap your foot to it.

Below are some questions for discussion of the poem. There may be people who really fall in love with the poem as I did and there may be people who find it a little arch or old-fashioned or affected – too much. That in itself can be an interesting discussion.

Q: Before considering the content, do you have any reactions just to the sound or feel or impression of the poem?
One response is just enjoyment of the language and playfulness – which really feels like what he is describing, in the way the snow descends, the turns of the language and the lines, and how the poem looks on the page. Hardy seems to be having such fun with the words, sounds, and form. You can almost see him smiling. I find the effect very visceral, physical, satisfying. But – as will be part of the point of the Icarus poem discussion – not everyone will have the same reaction.
Of course the content can’t be separated, especially in a poem that, to me, really does what it is talking about, makes you see what he is describing happening in front of your eyes and almost (to me, but maybe I got carried away) to you. It is so well observed.

Q: Have you seen the kind of scene that he describes, whether just the snow or the little events unfolding? When was the last time you took the time to stop and notice what the snowflakes were doing, or what a mere sparrow was doing in a tree in the snow?
People may have done this and noticed things just in the last day – or may have been so absorbed in their thoughts and “the next thing” as they went across campus etc that the snow and surroundings were just something to get through. Which of course is part of what we get from literature, its stopping us to notice.

Q: The cat only comes in in the last 2 lines, but what would the poem be without it? What does the cat on the doorstep, and then let in, do to the poem?
To me, it makes the poem – which otherwise was, however vivid, merely a description of the outside, of nature, winter – something more, suddenly bringing in the opposite, the inside, home. In the closing line “and we take him in” we can almost feel the door closing behind the cat and the warmth of the home – now with cat! – against the cold. (Not sure how we knew he was there, but we did, and opened the door to him – stood there in the next to the last line and looked at him standing there wide-eyed and thin– and then took him in.) The home is warmer and more homelike, and so are we, because of the cat. We have the satisfaction and comfort of giving comfort to this creature of “feeble hope”, something that captures some of the human-animal relationship, the mutual comfort.

Q: Anything else to say about “We take him in”? What does it make you think of, feel? How does that “taking in” change the poem?
I don’t want to push it too much but the “And we take him in” to me captures that act of taking in the animal – whether into our house, our life, our heart, our empathy, or our imagination. It changes us, just as it changes – I believe – the poem. And he, the cat, takes us (after all, he came here – without much hope, but with some), too.

Poem’s title: Looking at the title (and never forget to look at a poem’s title – sometimes we jump into reading without starting by reading and paying attention to the title) we can imagine that “the suburbs” were different in Hardy’s day – the end of the 19th/early 20th century, before ubiquitous cars and malls, probably with houses further away from each other, more separate.

Form: It’s two 8 line stanzas – rhyming couplets – followed by a short 4-liner, but the line lengths vary and so far as I know it’s Hardy’s invention or playing with form.

- Hilde Weisert

1 comment:

Kitty said...

Thanks for your nice explanation. I love this poem but was struck mainly by its vivid visual image and its observation--being a foreign I'm not very sensitive to the sound or rhythm sort of formal elements. Now this poem means even more. Thanks!