February 17, 2010

Whittier's Winter Idyl

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.

Thus begins Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll, which was published on February 17, 1866. Its author, John Greenleaf Whittier, had primarily been known as an abolitionist poet. With the Civil War over and emancipation achieved, Whittier turned to more peaceful topics. He told his publisher James T. Fields it was "a homely picture of New England homes."

Snow-Bound was based on a storm which forced the Whittier family indoors (at what is now the Whittier Homestead, open to the public). To pass the time, the family told stories by the hearth. By the time Whittier wrote the poem, he lived only six miles away from his boyhood home and birthplace. Though it had been in the family for generations, it was then owned by others.

To Whittier's surprise, the book was an instant success, eventually earning him $10,000 (unadjusted) in royalties. Biographer Francis Henry Underwood noted its appeal: "The scenes glow with ideal beauty... We have afterwards nothing but recollections of cheerful piety, modest and steadfast truth, and heart-felt love."

Ultimately, the family-based narrative in a quaint New England home recalls the simple, peaceful days before the Civil War. Whittier, a Quaker, also stands defiant to emerging modernism (both culturally and poetically).

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed.

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