Snow Falling on the Living and the Dead

It’s snowing in Philadelphia, Oslo, Moscow, Chicago, Kiev. It’s nature subtly showing its power to do what it wishes without concern for the grand schemes, goals, and journeys of my grand life. It is the same as another childhood memory: I remember swimming in the ocean out to the buoys and beyond. I remember being terrified and liberated by the water rising and falling slowly, with the indifference and power that could move mountains.

The closing words of The Dead by James Joyce (one of the greatest short stories ever written) describes this same very snow falling on my head today:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

The story is of a young love between a girl and a boy, told in part from the perspective of another man who married this girl, years after the boy (love of her life) passed. Here’s a clip:

Like this story and the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening below, the whole thing from birth to death is short and simple. All the turmoil of day-to-day existence, the exciting noise of games and chases and survival, is all silenced by the falling snow.

I’ve read this poem countless times, written a couple last-minute English papers on it, seeking out the interpretations from Freudian to religious to existentialist. None of that ever got to why I enjoyed it, and why it captured the feeling I have today, and often do:

There are rare pauses when something pulls me out of the stream of hurried habits and tasks, maybe: a love for a girl. Nothing grand, just simple feeling, chemicals moving about in the brain. And I stand there (metaphorically speaking) for a brief time, lost in the rush of this feeling before the tug of the horse and the harness bells remind me of my obligations: the miles to go before I “sleep”.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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