A critical analysis of ‘Snow’ by Carol Ann Duffy. Original poem, audio commentary and accompanying notes below.
Then all the dead opened their cold palms
and released the snow; slow, slant, silent,
a huge unsaying, it fell, torn language; settled,
the world to be locked, local; unseen,
fervent earthbound bees around a queen.
The river grimaced and was ice.
thought the dead, using the snow-
but where you are, offering the flower of your breath
to the white garden, or seeds to birds
from your living hand. You cannot leave.
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?
-Carol Ann Duffy
My first impression was that the overall irregularity of the poem (two unequal stanzas) suggests a freedom of thought and expression. The eye is drawn towards the line break, which occurs just before halfway. On a structural level, the first stanza demonstrates a level of poetic control, with lines of generally equal length and lines ending in secure punctuation. As a result, the reader is carefully guided through the poem’s opening.
This first, controlled stanza consists of one extended sentence followed by a short compound sentence – ‘The river grimaced and was ice.’ This gives the reader a steady path to follow throughout the poem’s opening before being presented with a closing image of a freezing, ‘grimacing’ river. There is a natural flow, reinforced by the secure, tight punctuation and use of caesura.
After this, the line break signals a shift in thought or narrative, almost an interruption of the flowing descriptions of the first stanza. From this point onwards the structure also undergoes a change. Shorter sentences and clipped clauses, signalling a less settled outlook overall. It is worth noting that the second stanza does not begin at the beginning of a line, but continues at an indent at the end of the previous line. Rather than a completely new idea, the second stanza is a continuation of the first, after a pause for recollection.
There is an immediate conflict in the type of words presented in the first stanza. On the one hand you have words related to death (dead, cold), demise (fell, released, unsaying) and constraint (locked, unseen, earthbound, and in the second stanza, ‘tighter and tighter’). On the other hand we are given a vocabulary of peace, release/ freedom and calm (released, settled). This ambivalence in language continues in the second stanza, in which Duffy puts forward closer juxtapositions such as ‘fierce embrace’. Whatever ambivalence was introduced in the poem’s opening is developed and built upon as the poem progresses, highlighting the poet’s struggle to articulate her feelings.
Alliteration creates an immediate beauty and poetic elegance, in particular the sibilance of ‘snow; slow, slant, silent’ in the second line. Duffy revels in the aural quality of language in the first stanza, filling it with internal rhyme and long vowel sounds. (opened/ cold/ snow… fell/ settled… unseen/ queen… earthbound/ around…)
Duffy’s poetic wordplay is evidenced quite beautifully at the end of the second line, where snow; slow, slant, silent describes, with great economy, the transition of snow from falling (‘released’) to settled and silent on the ground. The choice of words is powerfully understated, mixing word classes to describe the action. Ironically, Duffy then goes on to describe this action, the ‘unsaying’ as ‘huge’.
The poem begins with an image of the dead releasing snow from ‘cold palms’ but the image is at once as beautiful as it is morbid. A gentle release from dead hands. Again, Duffy is ambivalent in her description and attitudes and we are not given clear instruction as to how to take these images. The dead simply ‘release’ the snow; a calm, almost passive verb that does not excite or alarm the reader. However, their palms are ‘cold’ – there is no life or vitality to their actions and Duffy does not romanticise this.
Another interesting aspect of the imagery in this poem is the extent to which Duffy blends the literal with the metaphorical. Snow we can accept as the actual, physical element, but the dead hands from which is falls are clearly figurative. A similar contrast is evident in the metaphor ‘torn language’. The snow is fragmented and lacking meaning, but literally settles on the ground.
Duffy exploits personification to make her images both fantastic and visceral. The river grimaces and the snow holds the land, highlighting nature’s vulnerability and power, respectively. On this note, Duffy fills her poem with natural imagery but shies away from pure romanticism, using language that is touched with something sinister, ie: death. Even the reference to a ‘white garden’ suggest something closer to an afterlife – and the life of breath (‘the flower of your breath’) is sacrificed as an offering.
Rhythm and Tone:
A gentle, measured rhythm in the first stanza gives way to a more jarring rhythm after the break, created by heavy punctuation and short clauses. The swaying lyricism of the first stanza, with its slow vowels, creates a slow, steady pace which speeds up in the second stanza, when more ideas are being offered in a slightly more frantic style.
Overall, rhythm and tone are closely linked in this poem. The calm, near-religious tone of the first stanza is reinforced by the fact that it starts with ‘Then’, redolent of biblical scripture. In this, Duffy writes with the assuredness of a prophet but, after the break, becomes more natural in her musings, doubts and observations. It is particularly important that the second stanza, with its dramatic, arresting statements (you cannot leave… it is like death… etc)
Ambivalence seems to permeate the poem, illustrated by the simile that the effect of snow is ‘like death’ but ‘lovelier’. This unresolved attitude is reflected in the final phrase in which we are presented with the question over what to do with ‘the gift of left life’, ‘left’ meaning redundant. There is a pessimism run through with quiet beauty, and the language Duffy uses at the end of the poem is noticeably pessimistic – ‘cold, inconvenienced, late…’
On one level ‘Snow’ is simply a detailing of snowfall and its effect on the natural landscape, through a highly poetic and figurative lens. Duffy hits us with strong figurative imagery from the outset, describing snowfall with heavy poetic style. The heightened poetry of this description makes the poem more than simple description – its darker undertones (typical of Duffy’s work) suggest a more philosophical musing on the transition from life to death. Snow is beautiful, but holds the land in a ‘fierce embrace’. This grip alludes to ‘death’ and the final question we are presented with asks us to ponder what to do with the remains (‘left’) of our life.
A tension between the beauty of snow as a release and the onset of cold as a restraining factor permeates the poem. Duffy forces us to accept snow as beautiful, telling us it is so at various points. However, she also forces us to confront snow as the product of death, ‘used’ by death to bind earth, life and nature.
Ultimately, the fact that Duffy ends her poem with a question tells us that she is unresolved. She grapples (quite beautifully) with her own ambivalence towards life and death, using snow as a muse to this end.