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Word from Wormingford

03 March 2017

Ronald Blythe starts Lent in in snow-imposed solitude in this archive piece from March 1996

SNOW-BOUND. The last time it happened, an American friend asked if I knew John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Snow-bound”. This was a few years back. It is one of the great snow poems, and, re-reading it after discovering the track up to the lane blocked by drifts, I was struck by Whittier’s “hereditary” memory of English winters.

He is a boy cooped up with his family and a handful of neighbours in a clapboarded farmhouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts in c.1820, but subconsciously his experience is still that of Haverhill, Suffolk. The same — marvellously described — north wind; an identical interior. And the same just Quaker God, of course. The rattle and roar, and the vast white silences are made to contain, as it were, the noble domestic life.

Blizzards are among literature’s chief devices for casting together strange bedfellows, and this one is no exception; for among the neighbours is Lady Hester Stanhope’s equally eccentric friend Miss Livermore. The pair of them had fallen out on the question of which one of them took precedence at the Second Coming to ride into Jerusalem with the Lord.

“Snow-bound” offers a lad’s view of religious fantasy and rationality having to exist in the closest proximity until the thaw. Anyway, sans the media, what has humanity ever done in captivity but tell its own tales? These, though enchanting, come second best to the tale of the snow itself. It is the same tale it always tells, first in a wild rage, then so quietly that you can hear the flakes crystallising the trees.

On Ash Wednesday, I made a reconnaissance to see if I could get to church to read Joel’s fierce demands — “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the people. . . let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar” — but found I had to climb Duncan’s steep field if I was not to vanish in drifts. These were combed by the wind into rising segments like the roof of the Sydney Opera House, and impassable. There was a pale new moon as sharp as a sliver of ice, and air which spoke daggers. So home to a little Lenten music, and an apology to Joel for being so effete.

The worst thing is that many of the village people live on gritted roads, and my snow-bound descriptions are put down to writer’s hyperbole. It took an ox-team to “break the drifted highways out” in Whittier’s poem, and should the worst come to the worst (which it never does), I dare say Duncan will send a tractor down. But not yet. Also, by the time that these luxuriating thoughts on inaccessibility are read, the drifts will be streams hurrying to the river, and the way will be clear.

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