John Greenleaf Whittier, Snowbound (Reilly and Britton, 1865)
[originally posted 16May2001]
I have problems with a good deal of pre-twentieth century poetry. Most of them can be summed up by obtaining, and skimming, a copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snowbound, a relatively short poem (for being a whole book) published in a rather lavish illustrated edition by Reilly and Britton at the beginning of the last century.
First, while the best poets use rhythm (in this case, iambic tetrameter) and rhyme as a way to challenge themselves, the rest use it as a convenient way to tell a boring story while keeping the reader’s attention with rhyme. Or perhaps in this case I’m being too generous; there is no story here, more an impressionist piece on a number of friends and family of Whittier’s who are snowed in for a night. I’m all for impressionism, but a hundred fifteen (albeit ten lines per page) pages of it?
Second, and most importantly, long poems from the nineteenth century sometimes have sections in them that have nothing to do with the rest of the poem; extensive wanderings of thought that require to poet to get back on track int he most jarring of ways. Such is the case here as Whittier, an abolitionist, goes off his snow-bound folks for a number of pages while injecting a rant about slavery. Don’t bother trying to figure out what it has to do with the rest of the poem; you could spend years trying to reconcile the two with no success.
Lastly, in order to keep a reader’s interest, rhythm and rhyme have to be used in something approaching an inventive way. Having a comma at the end of every line and no variation at all in the rhythm makes for an exceptionally boring poem (or perhaps a passable pop song); over a hundred pages of it makes for good kindling.
Awful. Absolutely awful. *