Dust of Snow

One will rarely come upon a classical allusion in a Robert Frost poem. His poetic scheme was to follow the speaking patterns of common folk, to use their words and images to achieve his point. Despite this simplicity, there is a depth and richness to his poetry that can be missed by the inattentive. “Dust of Snow,” first published in his third book, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection New Hampshire in 1923, is just such a poem:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

Restated in a way that removes all poetry the poem would be: a crow shakes a tree’s snow on the speaker and his mood is changed. Of course, a summary is not an understanding. Seeing the setting is helpful, but not enough. Part of understanding poetry comes from asking the text questions, such as:  What is the significance of “dust of snow” (an image so important that it’s repeated in the poem)? Is the type of tree significant? Is the type of bird significant? How does snow falling on someone change his mood?

Often, asking the question brings a ready answer. Wintry settings are often pictures of Death. To say “dust of snow” instead of snowflakes invokes the dust to dust-ness of life. Crows are often harbingers of death. And while a hemlock tree isn’t poisonous, the very mentioning of hemlock is enough to bring up ominous overtones. But the chief question remains, how does a light fall of snow change the speaker’s mood?

We could answer that the levity of the situation is enough to lighten his mood. Or perhaps so many symbols of death have reminded him that life is short. But there’s more to notice here. In the latter half of the poem we have a gift, a change of heart, and the salvation at the end of the day. Of course, being “white as snow” is often a symbol of forgiveness (matched with the repentance in line six), and perhaps too falling snow has some baptismal element. But these details indicate a deeper change of heart than a simple carpe diem dictum.

There are still two critical details that we haven’t discussed. It should be noted that it isn’t the snow that changes the speaker of the poem, neither is it the crow. What initiates the change is “the way” the bird shook down the snow.

The question then is: what is the way a crow shakes snow from a tree? It is here that a knowledge of the rest of Frost’s poetry serves us well. Frost is a vigorous, relentless walker of the woods, and often his poems are in that very setting. Even apart from that, it makes sense to see that while the man is ruing the day he is walking, blowing off steam as it were. There is some turmoil or disdain that he carries with him as he walks the woods. Coming toward a tree he startles a crow above him, which, squawking loudly no doubt, causes the bird to leap from his perch and fly away, thus sending down a light sprinkling of snow. This is the way a crow shakes down snow. The change of heart comes from both seeing the crow fleeing and the act of flying, the ascension itself.

But there is something off about the last line. The poet Kay Ryan makes the point that the final line is “not quite speech.”[1]  The final word is antiquated and out of place in such a simple poem. “Rued” means to suffer, to loathe, to grieve. It comes from the old English word meaning sorrow and repentance. Frost, as a master of language, could’ve arranged it differently had he wanted to achieve a more natural expression. So why the awkward “of a day I had rued”?

The reason rued is chosen, I believe, is because it is a pun. A rood is a cross or crucifix. At the conclusion of the poem, a poem about death full of salvation language, Frost sticks in our head a homophone for the Cross. Returning to the beginning of the poem we see that what initiates this change is the Way (reminiscent of John 14:6).

This epiphany is echoed in its meter. Written primarily in iambic dimeter, there are three lines that break the pattern, lines four, five, and eight. The appearance of the hemlock tree calls for an anapestic interruption: “from a HEMlock TREE.”  This ramps up the energy of the line, causing it to spill across rift between stanzas into the next line: “has GIV-en my HEART.” These two lines, anapest iamb// iamb anapest, emulate the change of heart, the increased heartbeat of the surprise gift. It is a cacophony, followed by the cadence of the sixth and seventh lines, which return to iambic dimeter. But the final line reminds us of the transformation with a rambunctious anapest (of a DAY i had RUED), a little skip at the end that reveals reality is forever changed.

Suddenly our apparition of death loses its strength; it flies away in fear. It is this flight, Death itself running away, this vision, that changes his heart; it is ascension, a glimpse of resurrection, that drives off death; it is the gift, the baptismal rain, that has brought salvation.  On a day both rued and rood-ed, the crux of joy and sorrow, comes an unexpected gift, the day of death from which flows all life. Even a man of such tattered faith as Robert Frost knew that on the heels of death, in the very dust, beneath the cawing carrion bird, resurrection rises.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.

 

[1] Ryan, Kay. “Specks.” Poetry Magazine, September 3rd, 2013.