With the death of his sister and the arrival of his niece to keep house for him, Whittier wanted to commemorate his sister and recreate his past for his niece, in poetry. At first he thought of it as a short children’s poem, but as it grew, he told Jamie Fields, his publisher, that he was writing a poem giving “a homely picture of old New England homes.” (Woodwell 338)
With encouragement from Fields, Whittier completed the poem in October of 1865. Snow-Bound was published in February of 1866 in book form and became an immediate success. By April the 10,000 copies in the first edition had been sold out, and Fields was printing more. It continued to have unprecedented success not only because it was some of Whittier’s best writing, but because war weary Americans, going through the industrial revolution, were becoming nostalgic about their rural past.
By midsummer the sale of Snow-Bound had reached twenty thousand; it was ultimately to bring Whittier $10,000 (Woodwell 338). Snow-Bound,and the commissions Whittier received due to his Snowbound popularity, gave Whittier financial security for the rest of his life, allowing him to pay his niece’s expenses at Ipswich Seminary, put another addition onto his house in Amesbury, and leave a legacy when he died.
The poem opens with a long introductory note in which Whittier identifies the people in the poem and tells how important story-telling was in the Whittier household.
“In my boyhood, in our lonely farm-house, we had scanty sources of information; few books and only a small weekly newspaper. Our only annual was the Almanac. Under such circumstances story-telling was a necessary resource in the long winter evenings.”
After quoting a passage from R.W. Emerson’s “The Snow Storm” Whittier begins with a description of the storm.
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Whittier continues describing the pre-storm weather, and then describes the activities of the family.
Meanwhile we did our nightly chores,--
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn…
And that night:
Unwarmed by any sunset light***
The gray day darkened into night,
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
So all night long the storm roared on:
The morning broke without a sun;…
And it snowed all day.
And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
After describing the strange appearance of everything covered with snow, Whittier gets back to the human action.
Our buskins on our feet we drew;***
With mittened hands, and caps drawn low,
And, where the drift was deepest, made
A tunnel walled and overlaid
With dazzling crystal:…
Whittier continues to describe how they take care of the animals, how the wind continues all night, and how the family gathers around the fire. He describes each member of the gathering. His father tells stories of his travels among the French and Indians in Canada:
Our father rode again his ride***
On Memphremagog’s wooded side
Sat down again to moose and samp
In trapper’s hut and Indian camp;
Our mother, while she turned her wheel***
Or run the new-knit stocking-heel,
Told how the Indian hordes came down
At midnight on Cocheco town,
And how her own great-uncle bore
His cruel scalp-mark to fourscore.
Our uncle, innocent of books,***
Was rich in lore of fields and brooks,
The ancient teachers never dumb
Of Nature’s unhoused lyceum.
Next, the dear aunt, whose smile of cheer***
And voice in dreams I see and hear.—
The sweetest woman ever Fate
Perverse denied a household mate,…
There, too, our elder sister plied
Her evening task the stand beside;
A full, rich nature, free to trust,
Truthful and almost sternly just,
Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act,
And make her generous thought a fact,
Keeping with many a light disguise
The secret of self-sacrifice.
When he describes his younger sister, with whom Whittier had lived until her death earlier that year, Whittier’s sense of loss is palpable.
As one who held herself a part***
Of all she saw, and let her heart
Against the household bosom lean,
Upon the motley-braided mat
Our youngest and our dearest sat,
Lifting her large, sweet, asking eye,
Now bathed in the unfading green
And holy peace of Paradise.
Do those large eyes behold me still?
With me one little year ago:--
Having described the immediate family, Whittier moves on to the guests. First a student from Dartmouth who was earning his way through school by teaching at the district school while boarding with the Whittiers.
Brisk wielder of the birch and rule,
The master of the district school
Held at the fire his favored place,
Its warm glow lit a laughing face…
He teased the mitten-blinded cat,
Played cross-pins on my uncle’s hat,
Sang songs, and told us what befalls
In classic Darmouth’s college halls.
And then Harriet Livermore, described in Whittier’s opening notes as the daughter of Judge Livermore of New Hampshire. She was: "…a young woman of fine natural ability, enthusiastic, eccentric, with slight control over her violent temper, which sometimes made her religious profession doubtful.”
She sat among us, at the best,
A not unfeared, half-welcome guest,
Rebuking with her cultured phrase
Our homeliness of words and ways.
After another night of high winds that seem to be tearing the house apart, the Whittiers awake the next morning to the sound of the “snow plow.”
But the Whittiers have had no news from the outside for a week until:
At last the floundering carrier bore***
The village paper to our door.
Welcome to us its week-old news,***
Wide swung again our ice-locked door,
And all the world was ours once more!
These Flemish pictures of old days;
Sit with me by the homestead hearth,
And stretch the hands of memory forth
To warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze.
Full text of "Snow-Bound"