Today — now that we have entered the dark of the year — we will look at a poem on snow by Emily Dickinson.  If we consider the position and presumed tasks of women in her day (1830-1886), we should not be surprised if it then reads as a “feminine” poem.

Let’s examine it part by part:


It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

The snow falls slowly, like flour falling through a leaden — meaning heavy and slow here — sieve or sifter.  One may also think of “leaden” as referring to the grey color of the sky from which the snow falls.  Thus the poem begins with an image well-known to women, the sifting of flour for baking.

The snow — like fine white flour — “powders all the wood” — it covers the trees in the forest with whiteness.  It also fills the “wrinkles of the road” — the ruts and highs and lows and wagon and buggy tracks — with “alabaster” wool — meaning wool that is very white.  Alabaster is a translucent white stone, but it is being used as an adjective here to mean “pure white.” Dickinson is likening the falling flakes of snow to tiny tufts of pure white wool.  That is again something with which women of the 19th century would have been very familiar, from their spinning and weaving and related household tasks.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

Likely still thinking of the snow filling “wrinkles,” Dickinson says that it “makes an even face” of the mountains and the plain — that is, the hills and the flat areas below, smoothing them, making an “unbroken forehead”  — that is, a wide smooth area — from East to West.  We see in this the preoccupation of many women of the time with having a smooth and pale complexion — something Dickinson uses here to poetic advantage.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

The wide, flat expanse of snow reaches all the way to fence, and slowly “wraps” it — that is, begins to cover it rail by rail, until it is “lost in fleeces” that is, obscured by the whiteness of the deep snow, which Dickinson again here likens to wool — a “fleece” is the wool taken from a sheep or goat.

The snow “flings a crystal veil” — that is, it covers as if with a translucent white cloth — the stumps of trees, the stacks  — perhaps of hay left out, and of other things — and the stems of plants.  She calls this area “the summer’s empty room,” because it is the fields and gardens empty and flat after the harvest.  She describes it as “acres of seams where harvests were” — that is, the rows of stubble (now covered by snow) where crops once grew, which she likens to the long seams made by women in their sewing.  And she adds that if it were not for these remaining traces of harvest, there would be no record — no evidence — of the crops that had grown there in summer; they would be “recordless,” without evidence or remembrance that they had once been.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

The snow surrounds the bases and joints of posts, creating what Dickinson likens to cloth “ruffles,” such as might be found on the “ankles of a queen.”

The last line is a bit tricky, and rather ambiguous at first sight.  Dickson has spoken of the snow ruffling the “wrists of posts,” then says it

…stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

Grammatically, “its artisans” must refer to the artisans of the snow, but who or what are they?  The best explanation I have seen is that the “artisans” are the falling snowflakes, which vanish like ghosts when the snow stops falling, as though they had never been in the air.  But their work — the white covering of hills and fields and posts — is left behind.  The creators are no longer seen — having disappeared into the creation.

It is not a perfect poem, and certainly far from the best poem one might find on the subject of snow.  Dickinson greatly mixes her metaphors, from baking to cosmetics to sewing and costuming, but it does create a poem to which a woman of her day could easily have related because of the familiar allusions to household tasks and personal grooming interests.



Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.





One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.