No Comment, Quotation — January 24, 2009, 11:57 pm

Emerson’s Snow-Storm

friedrich-winterlandschaft

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the famer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Snow-Storm (1835) first published in May-Day and Other Pieces (1841) in: The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol ix, pp 42-43 (1904)


Franz Schubert’s “Die Winterreise” (DV 911)(1827) is a cycle of Lieder composed–like the earlier cycle that helped establish his reputation, “Die schöne Müllerin”–to poems of Wilhelm Müller. But there is a striking shift in tone. Whereas the first cycle speaks of spring-time, effusive love and a green fuse: these songs are pathos-laden and dark, as if a spiritual winter has settled in to match the meteorological one. They speak in tones of white and gray; their love is unrequited; their artistry is great and unappreciated. Among the most beautiful and also most somber songs of the series is “Der Leiermann,” performed here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Alfred Brendel on the piano. It may actually mark an emotional low point for the composer, a sort of crisis of confidence–to which he alludes explicitly in a letter to his friend Eduard von Bauernfeld just as the cycle was being brought to paper: “You achieve honors and recognition as a comic dramatist,” he writes, “but as for myself, I despair for my future. Will I spend my old age like Goethe’s harpist, dragging myself from door to door, begging for my bread?” But was it Goethe’s harpist he then had in mind, and not indeed Müller’s “Leiermann” (hurdy-gurdy player) who “trods barefoot upon the ice, his small plate always empty?” Schubert’s realization of this poem is a masterstroke of emotional release, and the piano passages carry the pathos between the stanzas, matching the beautiful, somber and utterly winter-like melancholy of the piece.

Müller is of course a lesser poet of the period and his poetry is charming, but not much of a match for Schubert’s timeless music. But consider Emerson’s “Snow-Storm” which is without a doubt one of his truly great poems. It also marks something of a departure for a man known for landscapes of the human soul. Or does it? In this work, Emerson describes a snow-storm settling over a rural setting. But the poem takes a distinctive turn inwards at its conclusion, “when his hours are numbered, and the world/ Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,/ Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art/ To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone.” Emerson has adopted the images and thoughts that rule Schubert’s “Winterreise” and govern the composition of Caspar David Friedrich’s great winter landscapes. Was Emerson familiar with Schubert’s “Winterreise”? Considering the obsession that the American Transcendentalists had developed for German Romanticism of the period from 1790-1830, that should be taken as a foregone conclusion. But the spiritual ties between these works are so strong that they hardly need documentation.

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