Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a 19th century American poet who wrote in the style of the English Romantics. The most popular American poet of his time, he was known and loved for his poems that appealed to the general population. His 1879 poem “Cross of Snow” is a commemoration of the death of his wife, Frances.
Romanticism began in the late 18th century as a philosophical and artistic response to Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. Enlightenment philosophy began as an attempt to move society away from accepted traditions and use reason to establish an intellectual society based on facts and scientific knowledge. Romantics felt this philosophy made no room for imaginative creativity and set out to transform the way society felt about art, culture and its perception of the world. Longfellow’s poem “A Cross of Snow” uses many of the techniques typical of Romantic-era poets.
Personal Experience and Deep Emotion
The Romantics believed art and poetry could be inspired by personal experiences which stimulated deep emotion, which in turned stimulated philosophical thought. “A Cross of Snow” is a poem Longfellow wrote eighteen years after the death of his wife. She died in a domestic fire in which Longfellow himself was injured as he tried to save her. In the poem, Longfellow indicates that his grief for her is still as strong as it was the day she died.
Inspiration from Nature
Romantics felt that nature provided unlimited inspiration for the human imagination, and they found much symbolism in natural phenomena. In “Cross of Snow,” Longfellow notices that snow gathered in a mountain ravine resembles the shape of a cross. Because the ravine is situated so that high temperatures and sunlight never melt the snow, it reminds him of his own grief that can never be alleviated. The cross also symbolizes his faith in God, and nature here provides a connection to a divine creator. The cross also symbolizes burdens humans bear, such as was defined by the words of Jesus, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Longfellow is expressing that grief has been his cross to bear over these eighteen years.
Meter and Rhyme
Romantics tended to use strict meter and rhyme schemes in their poetry. “A Cross of Snow” is written in the form of an Italian sonnet, which required fourteen lines with a very specific rhyme scheme. The first eight lines follow an ABBA ABBA rhyme pattern. The last six lines follow a CDE CDE pattern. In these patterns, lines represented by the same letter will rhyme. The change in rhyme scheme also indicates a change in subject matter. In this case the first eight lines discuss his wife, the last six lines discuss the mountain.