I WAS in the wood-panelled upper hall of an old college, standing by a blazing log fire and gazing out through diamonded panes, set in a mullioned stone casement, when it started to snow. I watched the snow fall gently, gracefully, seemingly in slow motion; for that first snow was of the best possible kind: large soft flakes drifting slowly down, unhurried, pausing, and even lifting a little with the small eddies and flaws of the wind as they made their long descent.
It was magical, and the two of us, whose conversation was stilled by the sight, both felt that tremor of old excitement and wonder that told us that the child within was still alive and well, as the cloisters and playing-fields below us gradually shimmered into whiteness. I called to mind the wonderful, and justly famous passage with which Joyce closes the last story in Dubliners:
. . . snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The supple cadences and inversions of softly falling . . . falling softly . . . falling faintly . . . faintly falling had themselves evoked a kind of slow swoon in my 17-year-old soul when I first read it, and, ever since then, that sentence has been a kind of undermusic or motif in my appreciation of snowfall.
Joyce’s elegiac tone also touches on something that we all feel when the first snow falls: that falling itself, the gravity of things, the inevitability of descent, is somehow blessed and redeemed by beauty in the gentle fall of snow. It suggests to us the possibility that there might be a letting go that is not calamitous, precipitous, helpless. The American band Over the Rhine have a song, “Let it Fall”, with the refrain:
Whatever we’ve lost, I think we’re going to let it go, Let it fall, like snow ‘Cause rain and leaves and snow and tears and stars. . . They all fall with confidence and grace So let it fall, let it fall. . .
Such were my musings from the mellowed warmth of a college hall, but when, early the next morning, I descended to the streets and made my way to the bus station, I thought again. For there, curled in a freezing doorway, bundled against the cold in dirty blankets and a torn sleeping bag, was a woman sleeping amid the litter, a strand of her red hair falling across her face, pale white in the reflected light of the snow on the street just beyond her little alcove.
She, too, must have played in the snow as a child, but I knew that her perspective on last night’s snow would have been very different from mine.
Those who have cared enough to campaign against homelessness, those who give what they can, when they can, and who urge us all to make compassionate choices in our politics, have of late been insulted and dismissed as “snowflakes”; but, to my mind, that name should be a badge of honour, a call to come down from on high and to melt with compassion.