The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIII. Whittier

§ 7. Snow-Bound

The high-water mark of Whittier’s artistic achievement was undoubtedly reached in the years that gave birth to Snow-Bound and The Tent on the Beach. The latter and less important of these two works is a cycle of narratives in verse, linked together in the fashion of Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. The company are three in number, “Fields the lettered magnate and Taylor the free cosmopolite” being foregathered on Salisbury Beach with Whittier, who thus describes himself:

  • And one there was, a dreamer born,
  • Who, with a mission to fulfil,
  • Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn
  • The crank of an opinion-mill,
  • Making his rustic reed of song
  • A weapon in the war with wrong.
  • The poems which make up the cycle fall into the general class of Whittier’s narrative verse; the thousand lines of octosyllabic rhyme which are entitled Snow-Bound are almost in a class by themselves. This idyllic description of the Whittier household shut in for a week by
  • The chill embargo of the snow,
  • which bids us
  • pause to view
  • These Flemish pictures of old days,
  • is not only a poem but a social document of the highest value. In the words of T. W. Higginson,
  • Here we have absolutely photographed the Puritan Colonial interior, as it existed till within the memory of old men still living. No other book, no other picture preserves it to us; all other books, all other pictures combined, leave us still ignorant of the atmosphere which this one page re-creates for us; it is more imperishable than any interior painted by Gerard Douw.
  • It has been said of Whittier that he could never be concise—and a diffuse style is undoubtedly one of the greatest artistic defects of the body of his verse—but the criticism falls flat in the presence of the lines which describe the fireplace on that winter evening.

    This poem has often been compared with The Cotter’s Saturday Night and it means to the American all and more than Burns’s famous poem means to the Scotsman. There is also much aptitude in a comparison with Crabbe, but it has qualities of wistful sentiment and tender reminiscence that are not to be found in the poet of The Village and The Borough. Akin to Snow-Bound, and to be mentioned as offering a foretaste of its subtle charm, is the short poem The Barefoot Boy, dated some ten years earlier, and cast in the same mould of retrospective yearning for the happy and wholesome days of childhood.