It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.
Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.
At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.
In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.
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.
It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings. One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does.
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.
The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.
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!’
The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:
“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!”
The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.
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.
More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.
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.
With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.