"Snow" by Louis MacNeice is one of my favourite poems. I have mentioned it on this blog often before. I've meant to write a whole post about it for a long time, but I've felt inhibited by its elusive magic.
As a poem which (in my view) addresses some of the most fundamental properties of reality, it's rather hard to grapple with. Somebody, I forget who, once said that poetry is there to express the things we can't express in prose. (Which reminds me of a more famous quotation: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.") There's some truth to this, and particularly so in the case of this poem. But poetry criticism and poetry appreciation still exist, just like music criticism. We want to talk about the things we love.
First, the poem itself. As it is widely available on the internet, I trust the MacNeice estate won't come after me for reproducing it here:The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
Surprisingly, given how often this poem is anthologized, there seem to be no consensus as to its meaning.
Clarissa Ackroyd, who writes a blog called The Stone and the Star (what a great name!), has this to say about the poem:'Snow' is a poem about the nature of reality, about the way things are, and about the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. It is a poem with an intense duality, showing the physical world as marvelous and bizarre, while also invoking what lies beyond the physical world. It is a poem about poetry, because poetry in its fullest sense is also a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious....It is a poem about being alive. There are moments when the beauty and strangeness of what we see or hear catches at the heart and leaves a indelible impression that can last for a lifetime.
As I said at the start, "Snow" is a poem that addresses some of the most fundamental aspects of reality. For this reason, MacNeice could have used pretty much any setting, any imagery. I like the fact that the imagery he chose was so conventionally poetic, even traditional: roses, snow and fire. I can imagine some of his more aggressively modernist contemporaries choosing something uglier or more banal; weeds and rust, perhaps. (Not that MacNeice's poetry never suffers from the influence of modernism; it very often does. But "Snow" is an ideal blend of modern conceptualism and traditional lyricism.)