Tuesday, September 24, 2019

On Snowflakes

Here is a delightful poem by Francis Thompson (1859-1907), most famous as the writer of "The Hound of Heaven": 

To a Snowflake

What heart could have thought you? --
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor? --
"God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind --
Thou could'st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost." 

I like this poem for many reasons. First off, I love snow. I wrote a whole blog post about my love of snow, here.

Secondly, I like the tripping metre. Lines like "Fragilely, surely", "So purely, so palely", and "Mightily, fraily" evoke the swirl of snowflakes in the wind.

Finally, I like the use of somewhat exotic words, such as "argentine" and "devisal". I like it when poets (and writers) use exotic words, and I think it's a shame that they often steer clear of them, out of fear of purple prose-- or, indeed, purple poetry.

Today, of course, we tend to use "snowflake" in a different context-- as an epithet for somebody who is too narrow-skinned or sensitive. (Sometimes it is expanded to "special snowflake".)

This usage began with conservatives mocking liberals who saw racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. everywhere. With tiresome predictability, it was soon re-appropriated by liberals, who accused conservatives of being "snowflakes" when they complained of being called sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. Now everybody calls everybody else a snowflake.

All that is polemic, and serves a purpose. However, it's a shame that the term has become so pejorative.

Why should the term "special snowflake" be reserved for such combative uses?

Everybody is a special snowflake. There, I said it.

It may not be the case that no two snowflakes are alike, but it's certainly the case that no two people are completely alike. And this is a very inspiring thought.

Why should people be so different? I can easily imagine a world where everybody was interested in the same things, loved the same music and movies and books, had the same politics, enjoyed the same activities, wanted exactly the same things out of life, and got excited about the same ideas.

It would be a world with a lot less conflict, perhaps. But it would be much duller.

I like to ponder the diversity of mankind because it's so triumphantly anti-reductionist. It's not the case that everybody wants the same things out of life. It's not even true in the case of bad people, never mind good people. There are bad people who want money, there are bad people who want power, there are bad people who want prestige, and there are bad people who are utterly idealistic-- and willing to do the most evil things for the sake of those ideals.

To move from the depths of wickedness to the great mass of humanity, however, we see that the multiplicity of human motivations is staggering. How often do historians find themselves puzzling over the purposes of the great men in human history? Someone like Winston Churchill, for instance? or Otto Von Bismarck? Or Thomas Jefferson?

Why are all ideologies so prone to fissures, schisms and tensions?

Since my father's death, and even before his death, I have been pondering the similarities and differences between our views of the world. He was a Catholic, like me. He was broadly a conservative and a traditionalist, like me. He was a romantic, like me. But every now and again, he would say something which made me realize that, in many respects, his view of the world was completely different to mine. For instance, he was much more of an essentialist in his view of nationality and ethnicity. He believed very strongly that such-and-such a people had such-and-such a character, and that this was hardwired into them-- whereas I am very sceptical of this, and correspondingly more fearful that peoples are in danger of losing their distinctiveness. My father (who actually campaigned against Ireland joining the EEC, which became the EU) was opposed to the European project because he thought it was doomed to failure, that the peoples of Europe were too different to weld into a unity. I'm quite the opposite-- I'm opposed because I'm afraid the project might, in fact, succeed in this very objective. (Although I believe my father would also have opposed this, too.)

As we know ourselves, sometimes it is very hard to put our own motivations and ideals into words. Certainly this is what fuels a lot of my own writing, and thinking, and reading. I have a very specific vision of my own, but trying to actually articulate it can be immensely difficult.

I don't think I'm special in this regard. I think I'm very ordinary.

Or rather, I think everybody is special. A special snowflake.


  1. "How often do historians find themselves puzzling over the purposes of the great men in human history? Someone like Winston Churchill, for instance? or Otto Von Bismarck? Or Thomas Jefferson?" Most all the time, supposedly!

    "Why are all ideologies so prone to fissures, schisms and tensions?" Since we almost by default tend to take ideologies to mean 19-20th century types it must have at least some to do with their inherent lack of deeper decency in regard to our true religion, however nasty that may sound to any average modern ear today, because if they had had what is so obviously lacking they would also have been able to agree to disagree and all the rest that comes with such notions.

    1. True. But Catholics also disagree! Thankfully, not always to the point of schism.

    2. Isn´t it an ocean between disagree in the broad sense and gruesome quarrel as poison? Only singulars, not motivated by the true religion, would take it to disaster among the faithful. More open whether anti-Christ ideologies would draw any moral lines proper or just go on reckless until dropping over the cliff.

    3. Yes, there is an ocean between those things, but I'm not necessarily talking about gruesome quarrels-- just clashes in belief.

    4. That´s more intriguing. To be sure if certain things matter they do matter strongly. Otherwise no clue whatever as to why we are so prone to clashes. Maybe it is natural?

    5. If some form of ad hominem attacks are the most common pattern in such clashes throughout church history (as they well might be) it could perhaps indicate that it even depends on some parts of the very traits in the person/personality involved. Only guessing but this post was so deep overall it got hard to come close to any "heureka" on the mysteries.

    6. Thank you! And I thought it was just a hurried post to keep the blog ticking over!

  2. It is nice piece, is it a coincidence that there's some points of resemblance to THE TYGER? Without comparing it too much to Thompson's poem,AMID THE FALLING SNOW is one of my favourite Enya songs:"A million feathers falling down, A million stars that touch the ground, So many secrets to be found, Amid the falling snow, Maybe I am falling down, Tell me should I touch the ground,Maybe I won't make a sound,In the darkness all around..."
    St Thérèse mentions finding snow inspiring also in STORY OF A SOUL

    1. There is something inherently poetic about snow, and I like those lines from Enya. The poem is indeed rather reminiscent of Tyger. It's funny how much awe and wonder and poetry is evoked by structure!