Friday 18 November 2011

Louis MacNeice's 'Snow': A Poem About Being Alive

SNOW (Louis MacNeice)

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

© The Estate of Louis MacNeice. Taken from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber. Used by permission.

Louis MacNeice famously described his ideal characteristics for a (male) poet as follows: "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions." I have to admit that these words, along with MacNeice's admirably strong jawline and brooding gaze (see the above picture), sent me off into a reverie about Manly Men who are also poets. The cover of his Collected Poems suggests that he also looked very very fine in a fedora hat. But I digress.
MacNeice certainly was a poet who had a grasp of both the seen and the unseen. Many writers and poets lean strongly in one direction or the other, and write either with a powerful physicality, or an intense vision of the intangible. It is surprisingly rare to really achieve both. MacNeice's poems are vividly sensual, as well as insightful and varied in their emotional landscape.
'Snow' is a poem about the nature of reality, about the way things are, and about the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. It is a poem with an intense duality, showing the physical world as marvelous and bizarre, while also invoking what lies beyond the physical world. It is a poem about poetry, because poetry in its fullest sense is also a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.
This poem reminds me of the work of James Joyce, another Irishman - particularly A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Ulysses. I preferred A Portrait of the Artist, finding it more accessible than Ulysses but still a remarkably effective portrayal of what it is like to be alive - the maze of thoughts and emotions, the waves of sensual impressions. With 'Snow', MacNeice is doing something similar. It is a poem about being alive. There are moments when the beauty and strangeness of what we see or hear catches at the heart and leaves a indelible impression that can last for a lifetime. This is the moment when we realise that "World is suddener than we fancy it."
As I read this poem, I can see the roses inside flaring brilliantly against the snow outside, perhaps caught in a sudden gleam from the firelight. I can taste the sweet-sour tangerine, feel the pips in my mouth, hear the small bursts and ripples from the fire. The physical intensity of this poem is second to none. It reminds me of the brief moments when I have moved out of the seashell interiors of the mind into a realm of pure sensation: at a very loud gig, drinking wine on an empty stomach and drowning in sound and light; watching sunrise over Uluru; riding a camel by moonlight into the Sahara and sensing the moment when the texture of the sand changed under its feet; running across a monumental Munich square at night in a thunderstorm. These moments don't come very often for me, but I never forget them: all part of "the drunkenness of things being various." 
And yet, there is much more to 'Snow' - this is where the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious comes in. I have read interpretations of this poem which suggest that the snow and the roses are distinctively Irish symbols - after all, James Joyce described the fall of the snow at the end of 'The Dead'. This is all possible, but what really stands out to me is that MacNeice understands how separate and yet how united things which are apparently so very different can be. 
"There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses", he writes. "Between" is a very ambiguous word. A wall can stand between two people, but so can a bridge. A window can separate, but it also joins, because you can see through it. The snow and the roses have come together, but they will never touch. This is a paradox, and it is part of the mystery of poetry. Disparate elements come together and maintain their own separate identities, but also unite to create something entirely new and extraordinary, and images from the unconscious swim to the surface to join with a more tangible reality.


  1. Wonderful—thanks for bringing this.
    Doesn’t it seem that Section VI of Geoffrey Hill’s “The Triumph of Love” is something like a bleak inversion of MacNeice’s imagery in “Snow,” perhaps an intentional rebuttal to MacNeice’s sense of transcendence? Here is the whole section:

    Between bay window and hedge the impenetrable holly
    strikes up again taut wintry vibrations.
    The hellebore is there still,
    half-buried; the crocuses are surviving.
    From the front room I might be able to see
    the coal fire’s image planted in a circle
    of cut-back rose bushes. Nothing is changed
    by the strength of this reflection.

    1. Thanks so much for bringing this out! I'm not familiar enough with Geoffrey Hill's work, though I hear that The Triumph of Love is one of the finest poetic works of the twentieth century, by some reckonings. I feel almost sure that this is a conscious reference to MacNeice, probably very much with the intention that you've described.

      I recently came across this poem, 'The Snow Whirls Over the Courtyard's Roses', by Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Tua Forsstrom, and the title at least is very reminiscent of MacNeice; I'm not sure yet if there is a closer connection, though.

    2. In Geoffrey Hill's poem there may also be a reference to W H Auden's assertion that "poetry makes nothing happen", although I feel that this quote is usually taken out of context.

    3. Oops - didn't post the link to the Forsstrom poem!! Here it is:

    4. There's also this, the opening of the second section of 'East Coker':

      What is the late November doing
      With the disturbance of the spring
      And creatures of the summer heat,
      And snowdrops writhing under feet
      And hollyhocks that aim too high
      Red into grey and tumble down
      Late roses filled with early snow?

    5. I love those lines from Eliot!

  2. Brilliant- thanks for helping to make more sense of a poem I love.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! It's one of my all-time favourite poems. And eternally rewarding.

    2. Definitely. Today's the first time I've been fully aware of 'spawning snow...'

  3. I'm so pleased to have found your piece on this beautiful poem new to me. It confirmed what I felt and explained it so fully. Thank you

  4. A lovely insight, into may favourite poem.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful, lovely post. I have been thinking very much about this poem, and posting visual poems (snowroses) on The Asterisk Machine twitter account (@usefulstars, the most recent in this thread: in response to Colin Graham's (@19acres) delightful tweets (here: Best wishes Catherine Vidler

    1. Thanks for commenting - and I know your Twitter account! This seems to be one of these works which inspires people in so many different ways.

  6. This is a lovely analysis. For me, this poem took a lot of thought to even make sense of it, but when it clicked (with the help of your brilliant post!) I had this sense of feeling that I was experiencing one of these 'suddenly rich' moments. I like to think that my response manages to live up to some of the ideas Macneice was exploring; the closeness and distance between the physical (the effort it takes to understand a cryptic poem) and then the wonder of having understood even just a little. I'll stop philosophising now — thank you for sharing your insight!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment (and apologies for my late posting of it, and reply - I've been travelling). What you've said is insightful - it's also a poem about understanding poetry, not only about engaging with the world around us. I really love how 'Snow' says so much, and is so enjoyable, in only twelve lines - it's a great example of why I love short poetry.

  7. It also reminds me of Richard Wilbur's 'Boy at the window':

    Seeing the snowman standing all alone
    In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
    The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
    A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
    His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
    The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
    Returns him such a god-forsaken stare
    As outcast Adam gave to Paradise.

    The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
    Having no wish to go inside and die.
    Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
    Though frozen water is his element,
    He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
    A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
    For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
    Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

    Wilbur's poem is also based on personification and unexpected points of view (the snowman's) revealing an unsuspected truth.
    Will H.