IT SIFTS FROM LEADEN SIEVES

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 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.

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