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“In the long sleepless watches of the night, a gentle face—the face of one long dead—looks at me from the wall….”

October 10, 2009

“The Cross of Snow” (H.W. Longfellow)

In the long sleepless watches of the night
A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a soul more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

This sonnet I have always considered as among the most perfectly realized Italian (or “Petrarchan”) sonnets in English. The image provided below illustrates its structure, which follows the model of such a sonnet with astonishing exactness: the eight-line octet (itself parceled out into two neat quatrains); the “turn” in thought & theme at line nine; the six-line “resolution” of the sonnet in the sestet (parceled out in two tercets); the rhyme scheme of the whole (ABBAABBA CDECDE); etc.


But there is much more to be said. Notice that each quatrain within the octet has its own integrity, its own theme. In the first, we have the portrait on the wall (of Longfellow’s deceased wife), in its “halo” of lamp-light. In the second, we find that, in “these long sleepless watches of the night,” the poet (insomniac, still, after eighteen years) comes not simply to gaze, again, upon the portrait of his wife, but that he has kept that portrait in the very room where she died. And of course the “halo” of light of the first quatrain, which might have been taken more or less literally (i.e., as a circle of light cast by the lamp: one must scroll through definitions 1a to 1f before arriving, in the O.E.D., at the religious sense of the word in definition 2);—this halo of light is sanctified in quatrain two by the additional idea of “martyrdom”—and not just any martyrdom, but one of “fire,” which is both a martyrdom really suffered by some of the “benedight” (blessed) saints whose “legends” are on record in “books,” but which in this case also refers, in fact, to the manner of the poet’s second wife’s death: Fanny Appleton Longfellow died “in this room”—in her husband’s study—after her summer dress caught fire as she sealed a letter with hot wax, on July 10, 1861.

Notice also how Longfellow varies relation of sentence to line in these two quatrains, each one of which reaches a full stop at its conclusion. The first is a single sentence, with one strong enjambment at line three; the second involves three grammatically independent clauses, and two strongly felt enjambments at lines five and six, and a third only slightly less strongly felt at line seven.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, as photographed by William Henry Jackson

The Mountain of the Holy Cross (as photographed for the U.S. Geological Survey by William Henry Jackson)

Next, at the “turn” into the sestet (a convention of the form), we first meet with the “cross” of the poem’s title, which does in fact exist in the Colorado Rockies: as with the death by “fire,” we have, here, a fact that serves equally well in literal and in figurative senses. The cross of snow is formed, of course, by its two “deep ravines,” carved into the mountainside; the heat of the sun cannot reach the snow there, even in summer. The cross of snow “defies” the fire of the sun, is untouchable by that fire—as has also been, of course, the legacy and “soul” of Fanny Longfellow. Obviously, the “cross” also complements the fact of the “halo” and the idea of martyrdom, and so extends the “sacred” theme introduced in the octet. That this cross is made of snow carries further implications, of course: its white immaculateness is an attribute of the “martyr” here remembered—the poet’s wife. That is the work of this first tercet of the sestet, for the sestet, like the octect, falls perfectly, with full stops, into two constituent parts. And the work of the second tercet is not simply to bring together every element so far introduced, which of course it does. No, it adds two more ideas still: first, that grief has marked the poet, scarred him, precisely as if two deep “ravines” had been graven into his breast; and, second, that his wife’s death by fire has seasoned him permanently (so to speak) with the  cold, killing touch of winter (the snow). And as if that were not enough, the tercet that closes the sestet that closes this fourteen-line Italian sonnet features also, in its sounds, what rhetoricians call a “chiasmus” (literally, a pattern of  “crossing”): “changing scenes”/”seasons changeless.” Form and theme gently merge, even as the argument of the sonnet reaches its full stop, where one feels it must, on the terminal word died.

In its orderliness, in its imposition of pattern and form on an almost insufferable confusion of grief, the poem, in some sense, actually does the ritual work of mourning that has taken, as we are told, some eighteen years to accomplish. I am always reminded, when I read “The Cross of Snow,” of a remark Robert Frost makes in his “Letter” to The Amherst Student, written in 1935, one year after his own daughter Marjorie died, and six years after his sister Jeanie died in the State Asylum for the Insane at Augusta, Maine, and even as his own son, Carol, was ever-more in the grip of the madness that would drive him to suicide in 1940. Frost knew more than most of us about the confusions and “excruciations” of grief when he penned these sentences:

When in doubt there is always form for us to go on with. Anyone who has achieved the least form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations. I think it must stroke faith the right way. The artist, the poet might be expected to be the most aware of such assurance. But it is really everybody’s sanity to feel it and live by it….The background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background any small man-made figure of order and concentration.

That is what Longfellow (whom, be it remembered, Frost admired) achieves in casting his “Cross of Snow” in so perfectly orderly and concentrated a form as the Italian sonnet I have just attempted to describe: a moment of “sanity”—a “small, man-made figure of order,” set against “a background of black and utter chaos.”

Longfellow, his wife Fanny, & children

Longfellow, his wife Fanny, and their children.

N.B.: For other entries in this blog pertaining to, or including, sonnets, click here, here, and here.

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