Selected by Angela Macmillan
‘London Snow’ by Robert Bridges was much enjoyed by reading groups in care homes for the elderly this week. The first half of the poem beautifully captures the absolute wonder of snowfall, making us almost nostalgic for the times when seven inches of snow was not a particular rarity. For children the snow is ‘crystal manna’: a blessing falling from heaven. But for the rest of us, snow is the enemy, holding up the daily round and we must wage war against it with snow-plough and gritter. Yet even as we grown ups tramp to work through the brown slush we glimpse the charm of the once pristine loveliness we have spoiled.Born in 1844, Robert Bridges qualified as a doctor and served as a physician in London hospitals including Great Ormond Street, before ill health forced him to retire early. Apart from a few poems Bridges is rarely read today so it may come as a surprise that he was once Poet Laureate. He is perhaps best known now as champion and literary executor of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder!’
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.
Robert Bridges, 1890