Sunday, February 14, 2021

Snow by Louis MacNeice: An Appreciation and Analysis

"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.

Olivia Coles on the Poetry Magazines website perceives a topical, political dimension to the poem:

For all the lyricism of Snow, beneath the surface is MacNeice’s trademark sense of foreboding - his sense not only of inescapable involvement but also of culpability... In 1935, events on the European stage were beginning to make it more than clear that this was a time of extremes, in which nobody could afford the privilege of subjective “variousness” and subtlety of opinion. A time of international crisis demands that opinions and alliances be black and white: as precise and perfected as the neoclassical Berlin that Hitler and Albert Speer imagined into existence, and the ideal city that Mussolini constructed on the outskirts of Rome. This sort of precision and belief that events can be seen in terms of winners and losers, good and evil, right and wrong, is an impossible ideal that MacNeice knows to be mere fantasy and a dangerous one at that.

The most notable academic criticism of the poem seems to be that of R.C. Cragg, published in the journal Essays in Criticism in 1953, some twenty years after the poem was published. Cragg's article is entitled "Snow, a Philosophical Poem: A Study in Critical Procedure". His conclusion is: " 'Snow' is a difficult poem. Its substance is the whole of cosmology, its glossary the history of philosophy. Not the least of its merits is its straightforwardness; it speaks openly and unashamed, avoiding the facileness of symbolical meanings, and it moves without confusion, distortion or strain."

Cragg's article is rather dense and his tone is haughty, but I believe he hits upon the essence of the poem in these lines: "The relation is not between snow and roses but is a world relation of concept, plurality. And yet plurality is the basis of one world, of a unity of impressions, and we are back to our old problem, the One and the Many."

I'll address the problem of the One and the Many in a moment, but it's worth noting that Cragg's thesis has been questioned in the academic literature-- in fact, in the very same journal, one year later. M.A. Roberts wrote "Snow: An Answer to Mr. Cragg", in which he asserted:

There is no need for philosophy here. The experience which the poem recreates is familiar enough. Our day to day experience of "world" is lifeless, killed by the weight of our abstract "knowledge" about it. But there was a time, and there still are times, of experiencing that world as a living thing, not abstractly, but "face to face".

Although Roberts (and Ackroyd) are certainly justified in seeing the poem as a celebration of immediacy, and although there may perhaps be something to Coleman's political analysis, I think Cragg has it right. "Snow" is above all a philosophical poem, and in particular a meditation on the problem of the One and the Many. (I'm not so sure it's a "difficult poem", particularly.)

The One and the Many is a venerable metaphysical problem. Does only one thing exist, or do many things exist? If many things exist, how can we really say they are separate or different from other things? Are you yourself one "thing"? Is your arm one thing? Is a muscle within your arm one thing? Is a cell within that muscle one thing? How do we mark the boundaries between one thing and another?

We could analyse the world into smaller and smaller parts, perhaps going into the realm of the sub-atomical to find the basic constituents of existence. On the other hand, we could see the entire interconnected system as one entity of its own. Both claims are tenable.

Most of us, I think, accept the simultaneous existence of unity and plurality. The universe is, in a certain sense, a whole. But things also have an independent reality-- somehow.
That MacNeice was preoccupied by such metaphysical problems is clear from his other writings-- for instance, he wrote a poem entitled "Plurality", a response to the an ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides who addressed the question of the One and the Many, and who is often considered the father of metaphysics. It is, in my opinion, one of his best poems.  Rather strangely, Parmenides believed there was no such thing as plurality or change, that these were simply illusions, and that everything that existed was uniform and changeless. It's a strange position to take, to be sure, but he had his reasons for this claim, and they are actually quite difficult to answer. The attempt to answer them played a major role in the development of metaphsyics.

The One and the Many might seem like a rather dry subject for a poem, but I don't think this is the case. When we really ponder the problem-- or even when we find ourselves ambushed by it, unsuspected-- it arouses in us a sense of wonder, of surprise, of awe. How is that many things can exist? The last line of the poem tells us that "there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses". But what is this mysterious "more"?

I can't say what MacNeice meant by that line, but I would suggest that mysterious thing is "otherness". At least, that is what the poem suggests to me.

There has been much talk of "the Other" in the last hundred years, beginning in philosophy and eventually percolating into general social discussion. It's easy to scoff at this, and much of it is pretentious, but "the Other" is an important concept in so many ways.

For instance, many of the disputes between conservatives and progressives hinge on the concept of "the Other"-- a great deal could be said here, and doubtless the temptation is for me to be unfair to progressives. From my own conservative (and especially nationalist) perspective, the defence of "Otherness" is central to my outlook. Otherness, that is, conceived of as specialness, distinctiveness. To take one example, Brexit could be seen as an attempt to protect (or to revive) the "otherness" of Britain from Europe, or from globalization. On the other hand, liberals would doubtless fault conservatives for their hostility to the Other when it comes to homosexuality and transsexuality.
(This article in The Burkean was, I think, my best effort to argue for "specialness"-- or Otherness-- as a central conservative value.)

Is it legitimate to pass from the "hard" metaphysical problem of the One and the Many which Cragg (correctly, I believe) identifies as the theme of "Snow", to "softer" examples of the problem (or perhaps even analogies) drawn from society and culture, when considering this poem? I think so. This is, after all, the method MacNeice uses in other philosophical poems, such as "Plurality". MacNeice always took the broad view, and liked to jump from philosophy to politics to everyday life, and so on. That is why I think that the various interpretations of "Snow" are, in fact, quite legitimate.

Having regarded the poem as philosophy, let us now look at it as poetry-- bearing in mind that the greatness of "Snow" lies in its brilliant fusion of both.

The magnificent opening line is both dramatic and ordinary: "The room was suddenly rich..."

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.)

Even more than the lyricism of the imagery, I enjoy the ordinariness of it. "Snow" is set in a room which could be almost any room anywhere; although the presence of a bay window and pink roses suggests a front room, and it has a rather English flavour to it. "The drunkenness of things being various" is applicable to all times and all places; some more so than others, of course, but it's always there. Poetry such as this heightens the experience of everyday life. It makes us aware of the wonder and mystery which is always present.

The tangerine that the narrator eats is an understandable choice; a juicy fruit is probably the best sort of food to use in a poem about the vividness of the sensual. I don't like fruit myself, aside from a few-- bananas, grapes, dates-- and you'll note that these are the less juicy fruits. I particularly dislike oranges, apart for the very qualities which makes a tangerine appropriate here; the extraordinarily strong association they leave in the memory, particularly with the season of Halloween. (Fruit does seem more inherently poetic than other foods; an apple seems to have more poetic potential than a cheese sandwich.)

I've barely even mentioned, so far, the substance from which "Snow" takes its title. Regular readers might be surprised at this, knowing my love of the stuff. Indeed, I wrote a whole novel against a backdrop of snow, The Snowman. I also wrote this blog post, "The Storehouses of the Snow", on my love for snow.

It's easy to see why MacNeice chose snow as the central image of the poem. There is nothing more transformative than snow. It makes us see our surroundings in a completely new light, without doing violence to them or obscuring their natural contours. It's always sudden, silent, a least, in this part of the world. Just like the snowfall in Joyce's "The Dead", it tends to make us see the world in a new way. It awakens us.

Snow and roses separated by a pane of glass is a particularly powerful image. It's very cosy, of course, to imagine oneself sitting in a comfortable parlour and looking out, through roses, at the snow falling outside. But it's also evocative of the contrasts, the sharp edges, that give life so much of its relish and its character. A man and a woman embracing are as close as they can be, and yet remain utterly distinct in their masculinity and femininity-- "incorrigibly plural", "soundlessly collateral and incompatible". The same is true of a grandfather holding his infant grandson, a street lamp illuminating a dark alley, the ticking of a clock reverberating in silence, and any number of other delicious contrasts that you can imagine for yourself.

The phrase "incorrigibly plural" has entered popular usage, although "cultured usage" might be a better term here. That is, it is frequently quoted without attribution. It deserves it. Poetic genius is when a poet combines two or more words that fit supremely well, but that might never have been yoked together if they had not thought of it. When once you hear the phrase "incorrigibly plural", it inevitably suggests itself to your mind from then on, whenever you are trying to express the same concept.

The same applies to "the drunkenness of things being various", which is perhaps the crescendo of the poem, and its most famous line. My wife makes fun of me because I quote this line so often. But I can't help it. "The drunkenness of things being various" is an emotion that I feel very strongly, and that I have felt all my life. I find it in books of quotations, in browsing The Guinness Book of Records or The Book of Lists, in playing Trivial Pursuit and savouring its wonderful board, in scanning the shelves of libraries and bookshops, and in hundreds of other situations. I suppose there is something irreducible about this. You either feel it or you don't.

Of course, we know that the world is various, but somehow it keeps surprising us in its variety. Things are various in ways we don't expect or anticipate; there is always something new out of Africa, and out of everywhere else. The bounteousness of life is hard to express, the constant discovery of more. I think this sense of wonder and newness might be the wellspring of all poetry; the sense of awe that Keats captured when he wrote: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken..."

It doesn't require the discovery of a new planet to inspire this sense of wonder, though. It can just as well be something very ordinary, like snow beginning to fall outside a window full of roses.

Finally, in musing upon this poem, I come back to the strangeness of time, space, variety and mutability. I am reminded of Chesterton's lines:

The world is as wild as an old wives' tale
And strange the plain things are...

Reader, have you not felt the strangeness of these things? Don't the depths of the sea, with all the marine life going on there, seem like a fairy-tale on dry land? Doesn't it seem incredible to think you were ever a child? Doesn't it seem incredible to think that, hundreds of years ago, men and women very like us walked over the exact same spots of ground that we traverse today? Don't "the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea" seem uncanny?

The five senses which are invoked in "Snow" are also extremely strange, when truly pondered. Each is a world of its own, irreducible to the others, but all of them describe the same world. Brightness is completely different to heat, but both of them radiate from fire-- and so on. Once again, incorrigible plurality.

Why does MacNeice use the rather odd word "spiteful" in the line: "World is more spiteful and gay than one supposes?". I think he does so to describe the perversity and stubbornness of the world, the fact that it is always (or at least, regularly) different from our expectations. And why "gay"? Well, because the world goes on quite happily even when we are miserable. In fact, the ineradicable gaiety of the world has very often lifted me out of despondency into cheerfulness. Snow gleams, tangerines are juicy, and fire flames with a bubbling sound despite whatever heartbreak or melancholy you are undergoing.

I still don't feel like I have done justice to "Snow", but I have to stop somewhere. This poem seems something of a little miracle to me. It's an example of how language can rise above itself to evoke things which seem to be beyond the capabilities of language. I never cease to marvel at it.

Post-script the First: MacNeice himself had this to say about the meaning of the poem: "This is the direct record of a direct experience, the realization of a very obvious fact, that one thing is different from another-- a fact which everyone knows but few people perhaps have had it brought home to them in this particular way, i.e., through the sudden violent perception of snow and rose juxtaposed." I found this quotation on the internet, and its source is Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, though I can't find a page reference.

Post-script the Second: The story of the inspiration behind the poem (which I never knew till I researched this blog post) can be found here. Elsewhere I have found it stated, by the owner of the house in which MacNeice was staying, that the situation was exactly as described in the poem, down to the tangerines. He was present with MacNeice at the time.


  1. Makes me think of the dappled things painted in words by Hopkins.

    1. Yes, definitely links with the theme of variety!

  2. Could spiteful have come in there profanely because of spit or biting of the orange perhaps?? Just a long shot. (To previous comment: no connection to his style but only to the contrasts of the dappled things of course.)

    1. That never occurred to me but yes.. the spitting the pips and the world's spitefulness may be linked in both sound and sense!

    2. It got my image instantly. But the imagery that I don't get any clue for is the glass. Between the roses and the snow it says, but it is between the viewer and the outside. However, the poem was one that could and should be read many times. Maybe my mind works better another night.