Clover’s Literary Corner: Surprised by Grace

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Robert Frost. Photo: Library of Congress.
Dust of Snow
by Robert Frost
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.

 

Does it ever happen that you are just walking or driving along, and you are suddenly flooded with a feeling of gratitude, hope, and well-being? This happens to me, if I’m lucky, maybe 2-3 times a year, and always outside, in the presence of the vastness of Nature. I’ll be driving along Jarmans Gap Road and the panorama of clouds over the mountains opens up a path to heaven. Or I’m standing at the top of Black Rock Mountain while the wind’s breath tosses the sun-dappled trees as it caresses my hair. Or a thunderstorm hits, the skies open, and I am doused with wonder. 

How do we explain these sudden encounters with bliss? At these times, it feels as if Nature is speaking directly to me—and for once, I am listening. Such an experience, on the rare occasion that it happens, erases whatever worries or sadness have been nagging at me and allows my natural joy to re-surface. An inchoate presence reassures me that, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “all will be well” (Four Quartets). Call it what you will—the voice of God, the spirit of the Universe, the Over-Soul—it feels as if some consciousness is communicating with me, lifting up my soul, and telling me I’m loved and I’m safe. Despair evaporates and serenity settles in.

I believe it is just such a feeling of transcendent communion that Robert Frost describes in his short but powerful poem, “Dust of Snow.” In eight abbreviated, two-foot lines, Frost conveys a whole world of pain and redemption. There is nothing especially remarkable about a bird dislodging a handful (or talon-full) of powdery snow onto the poet as he walks beneath a tree after a recent snowstorm. Yet in the second stanza, Frost imbues this simple event with profound meaning—primarily with the use of the key word “rued.” Rue is a multi-faceted word that can refer to a bitter-tasting herb, a French street (e.g. Rue de la Paix) or, as here, a feeling of bitter regret or remorse. For example, fellow poet A.E. Houseman begins one of the poems in his 1896 book A Shropshire Lad, “With rue my heart is laden” for his lost—but not forgotten—youth and his beloved comrades, now “sleeping in fields/where roses fade.” Here, this old-fashioned word stands out amid Frost’s more commonplace diction. On the day of Frost’s poem, something has happened, or been said, for which the poet is deeply sorry and wishes he could take back.

But the feeling of remorse weighing our poet down is erased—at least partially—and his spirits lifted by the unexpected sprinkle of snow that rains gently upon him as he walks through the woods. This blessing isn’t just caused by the wind or the poet’s own motion; the crow acts deliberately to shake the snow off the branch and onto the poet. As in my experience, this simple, seemingly accidental, act of Nature communicates solace to the poet. His brief interaction with the natural world feels like a revelation, as if the universe had reached out to present a new perspective. The poem’s effect relies on a contrast between light and dark: the previously dark mood of the poet’s heart, the black crow, and the dark hemlock branch are contrasted with, and banished by, the cleansing whiteness of the snow drifting down on his head like an act of baptism. Both the crow and hemlock—the tree used to poison Socrates—are associated with death, but baptism by water brings new life and washes away sin. This small dousing becomes a form of salvation for the poet, lightening his mood and changing his heartsickness into a sense of hope and forgiveness—albeit limited, as it saves only “some part” of the repented day. The deceptively simple rhyme scheme adds grace to this brief encounter between man and nature; harsh k sounds in stanza 1 give way to softer g’s and esses in stanza 2. 

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is considered a quintessentially American poet. He was born in San Francisco, but lived primarily in New Hampshire and England. He cultivated a New England farmer persona, writing many beloved poems dealing with rural life close to Nature. His down home, folksy style often belies the deeper, philosophical questions raised by his brilliant poems. Frost’s best known poems include “Mending Wall,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Fire and Ice,” and “The Road Less Travelled.” He taught for many years at Amherst College in Massachusetts and at the prestigious Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College in Vermont. Awarded four Pulitzer prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960, he read at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

I have always loved this poem precisely because it perfectly captures my rare experience of unexpected beatitude that, like the poet, comforts me and lightens my gloom. In a mere 34 skillfully chosen words, Frost conveys a wealth of emotion, recreating this kind of beatific experience more eloquently than I can in an entire page of academic blather. Now, that’s poetry! Short enough to be memorized, this small epiphany of insight can be called upon when needed. May you have many dusts of snow in your days. 

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