Wednesday, February 28, 2018

London Snow

St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate: I failed to notice when taking this photograph that this street it stands on is Snow Hill!
Snow came to London today after a prelude of several days of freezing cold.  In the excitement I left my season ticket at home, so had to make the final part as well as the middle of my journey on foot (my eccentric route usually involves a bracing walk along the South Bank of the Thames), but I did not mind the walk of two miles in sunlight and snow.  So a rare and welcome excuse for this poem of Robert Bridges', a favourite of mine:

London Snow

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

St. Pancras Station (left) and the British Library (right)
Lines from this poem come to me fairly often, generally à propos of nothing in particular and even in high summer; in fact, it contains some of my favourite lines of poetry.  'All night it fell, and when full inches seven / It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness, / The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven', ... 'the unaccustomed brightness'... 'past tale of number'.  'Paul's high dome' is a line that murmurs comes to me almost every time I walk to work along the S Bank.    'Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying' is delicious, and notice the harmonious juxtaposition of 'stealthily' and 'perpetually', one with a Germanic root and the other derived from Latin; it is also evidence of Bridges' efforts, for musicality's sake, to purge his English poetry of sibilance (this is why he employed so often the older third-person singular conjugation, -eth or -th).  In general, the apparently irregular rhythm, the slight breathlessness of excitement, is one effect of Bridges' quantitative verse, which involves measuring a line by the length of syllables, rather than the stress placed upon them.  Catherine Phillips explains all this in her interesting biography of Bridges, which I read cover-to-cover about three years ago.

Sunlight and snow become London rather well, I think, just as they did in Bridges' time.

Regent Square


  1. It's funny, I've never been able to warm to Bridges. I have a copy of his Collected Poems and I've dipped into it several times, but I've always come away frustrated. Even this poem, I can't take any pleasure in it. Although I must admit, I am strongly prejudiced against any poem that is a sustained vignette of this type, such as "A Description of a City Shower"...I think the best poetry radiates outwards from a central concept, while poems such as this are too methodical. loss, I'm sure!

  2. Interesting... I'd have thought you would like it! It is the meticulousness and richness of description that appeals to me here, and its music. Do you mean that the best poetry has a central moral or narrative core, and that Bridges' snow isn't concrete enough, so to speak - that it has a shape only in so far as the event of a snowfall has a narrative shape?

    1. That's exactly what I meant, put better than I ever could have!

    2. I don't know about that, but thank you! I see what you mean. I admit that am puzzled by the poem's ending, which I find too abrupt, but I find its sonority thoroughly compelling.

  3. This poem appealed to me a lot. Finding its core musically sound (in double sense) the lack of poetry reading skills, as well as foreign ears for English, does not allow to see anything of this that may be flaws in the structure or concept. Apart from the ending coming so abruptly the impressions were wonderful! A small detail of one single word was the only "fail" noticed: if people were going out that particular day, would the paths still have been brown for all the white snow? ;-)

    1. I'm glad you like it! I suppose the 'long brown paths' are a result of the abrupt acceleration of the pace at the end of the poem, when suddenly 'war is waged with the snow'. Actually, even by eight in the morning of last week's London snowfall I found the pavements more brown and slushy than crisp and white. But then, we didn't have anything near a fall of 'full inches seven'.

      That double sense of the word 'sound' is one of my favourite homonyms.

  4. "It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness" was my favourite line of all!

    Close second was "The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
    The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air"

    1. There's a glorious boyishness about that repeated 'marvelled', and it isn't an overstatement.

      Thank you for commenting!


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