Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Swan Song XII -- "The Snowstorm" finale

The skies were blue yesterday, totally, gorgeously azure.  The wind was more than petulant, however, and the air was heaving with falling leaves, cars and trucks creating fluttering buttery wakes behind them on the streets.  It was, I suppose, quintessentially fall.  Chilly, but not cold.  Bright and colorful.


In a quarter century of teaching early American literature, I've been blessed a goodly number of times with reading Emerson's "Snowstorm" on the very day the season's first snowfall covers the ground.  Yesterday, no.  When it happens, it's charmingly apropos and makes the reading pure joy.

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 hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.

One of the blessings of living on the plains is that nothing really sneaks up on you, not even tornados.  There's always heavenly hoopla first, just as there is for blizzards.  You just know some thing's a'comin'.  If you get out in the country, you see dark gray skies swarming in from somewhere in South Dakota--or Minnesota.  Like royalty, snowstorms are officially announced before they make their entries--that's what Ralph Waldo says.

Out here especially, snow comes down sideways.  Years ago, during a January teaching stint in Michigan, I regularly swept a six-inches of snow off the top of my car--lake snow, that gentle heavenly stuff.  Only then did I realize that I hadn't seen that image--a stack of light snow--on a car roof since I'd left Wisconsin, years before.  Out here on the plains, there's always wind.  No snow falls straight down.  We're not Currier and Ives country here, but what's puzzling to me is that neither was Emerson.  He was a New Englander.  How did he know about snow that seems nowhere to alight?  There, snow is as darling as it is in Michigan.

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.

It's all right with me if we get them only once a season, but a hearty blizzard at least offers you the warm joy of "tumultuous privacy."  You sit inside, the snow sand-blasting your windows, Canadian winds howling, and no matter.  It's warm inside those walls around you.  In your hands you've got a cup of hot apple cider.  Your snuggled in flannel or fleece--preferably fleece because in a blizzard you can never have enough fleece--and your feet are house-slippered.  Let it snow.  Let it snow.  Let it snow.

I love that line--"tumultuous privacy of storm," and have since the first time I read the poem.  I used the line to title a story of mine once, a story that got itself on the cover of Minnesota Monthly long, long ago, the title--that Emerson line--emblazoned.  I was a wholly different human being back then.  Somewhere here in the basement, I'm sure I still have a copy of that magazine.  Later, I put together a collection of short stories and gave that collection the same title--The Privacy of Storm, so that, you might say, that single line has a place in my heart and on my vitae.  It's darlingly oxymoronic, but if you've ever sat through a real howling blizzard--a 24-hour affair--you know what he means when he says "the tumultuous privacy of storm." 

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

And then Emerson launches the conceit he'll employ throughout the rest of portrait--the idea of nature's God as a divine snow sculptor, the "fierce artificer."  Emerson's transcendentalism created a space for God that was so huge that no one--not even Emerson really--could draw a bead on it or him or whatever.  He was, in some ways, America's very first New-Ager.  God was the Over-Soul, the oneness, even "the great mystery"; and that divine being included, but was not defined by, Nature itself.  It was sort of all of life.  Sort of.  I don't know that anyone really knows. 

In this poem he gives that amorphous God yet another handle, "the fierce artificer," which has its own oxymoronic character--a kind of driven sculptor whose totally unstudied, unplanned work--"nought cares he/for number or proportion"--is left "round every windward stake, or tree, or door" once the wind dies.  This artist/God makes Michelangelo look sophomoric. 

On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.

There's a playfulness to this divine artist that would be comical if what he created weren't so stunning, so "swan-like."  He creates swans out of thorns, hidden thorns even, thorns no one will ever see, drifts that will never be noticed, stunning works of art that will never make a show or a museum; and they're everywhere, filling up the driveway, goldarnit, and around the gate creating an alabaster turret, a soft creation of marble. 

And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

And then this "fierce artificer" is gone, "as if he were not."  The sun shines blazingly over land that's ghosted into silence with the very first snow.  Everywhere you look "astonished Art" so vastly surpasses our belabored brickwork in technique and grace that it's almost comical, a "mad wind's night-work."  What it is, Emerson says, is just plain "frolic architecture."

Look, Emerson had real bozo moments.  "One part earth," James Russell Lowell said of him, "and ninety-nine parts pure lecturer."  Only his disciples--and he had them--never tired of his hectoring.  He worshipped a weird God so big that god was even in him, so to speak.  Chew on that for awhile.

But the fact is, I'll miss reading "The Snowstorm" in early November, miss it especially when my own God of nature happens to splash new snow up against the classroom windows right then and there.  There's a miracle in that Emerson himself would love. 

But then, who knows?--Maybe at some northern Minnesota cabin next year, the snow piling up outside, we'll start up a fire and warm some cider.  I'll stick my feet in some slippers, pull on some fleece, and, for old time's sake, google Waldo.

Why not?  Sounds good to me, even now, leaves falling, skies still blue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing Waldo this morning. In Dine' Land , at 6500 feet above sea level, we had a brief snow storm with 50 MPH wind gusts this morning. Couldn't even see Pyramid Rock, and the trees were bending almost to the breaking point. It seems that the good Lord God of land and sea is now sending His blessing of snow and moisture your way. We must thank God for giving us His sun to capture all that carbon energy over the centuries in the form of wood, coal and oil which we can extract from the earth to warm us and provide our energy in these stormy times. Now we can understand why all those conservative polititions in Iowa are so excited about supporting Obama's SOLAR ENERGY projects. We wouldn't even be here on earth if there was no solar sun to provide our energy. The wind is blowing hard again. I guess that must be an expression of His AMEN.