Snowflakes By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The simple beauty of nature is an aspect many of us take for granted in our everyday lives – the endearing sounds of birds welcoming another day and the powerful gush of a waterfall being some examples of these. But there are those individuals who have endeavoured to fully comprehend the marvellous complexity of the world around us. Such findings are present in the work of many poets – namely Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1808 – 1882). Hopkins and Longfellow were two contemporary poets from the nineteenth century from different cultures, English and American respectively who relished in the gift of nature with all her attributes. Both of their work is characterised by a deep and personal sense of appreciation of the beauty of the natural world – work that when studied makes us truly delight in the wonder that is nature.
The two poems that I feel effectively communicate Hopkins’ and Longfellows’ ideas are respectively “Pied Beauty” and “Snowflakes”. Although they are similar in their content concerning their love for the natural world, the poems do differ in the way in which each poet relates his ideas.
Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” is one of the most famous, characteristic and linguistically accessible pieces combining the elements of nature and religion. In it the poet praises the creator for the infinite range and scope within creation. His appreciation of the natural world ranges in scale from a rainbow trout to an entire landscape. Even from its title alone we know that this curtal sonnet is effectively a song of praise for all things ‘pied’ that is bi-coloured, streaked or patched.

The poem “Snowflakes” by Longfellow is also an expression of the poet’s attitude to and appreciation of the natural world. In it Longfellow describes in minute detail the subtle beauty of a single snowflake and makes us more aware not only of snow, but of the other small things surrounding us, making us realise their importance.
Both poems acknowledge existence and power of a creator. In “Pied Beauty” a song of praise is presented in the first line of the poem’s triumphant, alliterative opening stanza, as “Glory be to God…” immediately places Hopkins’ appreciation of the beauty of the natural world in a religious context. Also as the poem concludes with the exhortation “Praise him” it is clear that the piece is deliberately framed as a Christian hymn of thanksgiving for the infinite variety in nature.
The opening line also introduces the poem’s theme: “dappled things” and this is the first of many adjectives describing parti-coloured natural elements.
“Snowflakes” on the other hand opens with an altogether more maternal aspect of nature although the acknowledgement of a powerful creator is still present:
“Out of the bosom of the Air
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken”
This personification of the female form creates a ‘Mother Earth’ type figure that I feel Longfellow used to successfully communicate his love and understanding of all things natural to a wide audience as a mother figure is something most of us could relate to. In this particular instance it is this ‘Mother Earth’ entity that produces and generates the countless millions of snowflakes. We can directly contrast this to Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” where a masculine creator is presumed and praised “Praise him.”
Both poems perceive and praise a religious dimension to the beauty of the supernatural world. The religious theme in “Pied Beauty” is continued as appropriately the poet’s eyes seem to gaze up at heaven as he appreciates the beauty of “skies of couple – colour” implying that the sky’s beauty was the work of God. This image also lends a sweeping panoramic aspect to his poetic attention as I imagine the vast immeasurable skies above. Then foreshadowing a technique used later in the poem, Hopkins immediately narrows his broader focus down to refer to the streaked markings on one “brinded cow”.
In “Snowflakes” this religious theme is expressed in describing the shape of the snowflake as “some divine expression” indicating a superior eternal contribution to the formation of the snowflakes.
As we know the two poems are about beauty that is all around us, but I noticed that both poems focus on tiny and large natural entities. In “Pied Beauty” Hopkins comments on “rose-moles” on trout and “finches-wings”. It seems that no aspect or detail of nature is too tiny or insignificant to escape the poets’ attention. But on the contrary he also refers to “skies” and “landscape” showing the range in which nature is present. In “Snowflakes” Longfellow is concentrating more on the actual snowflake rather than an overview of all things ‘beautiful’. Yet in contrast he also comments on the “woodland” and “harvest fields” in which the seemingly harmless snowflake had somehow devoured.
Both poems also use alliteration to achieve their impact in places. In “Snowflakes” he describes the woodland as being “brown and bare” and the movement of the snow as “Silent, and soft, and slow”. This repeated initial consonant sound is used to set the scene that the poet is trying to convey. This is also present in “Pied Beauty” when the sky is described as being of “couple-colour” to convey the varying shades and tones present in the sky above. Also by describing the chestnuts as “Fresh-firecoal” the poet is helping us to envisage fully the sight of the dual coloured chestnuts falling from a tree.
In “Pied Beauty” Hopkins uses a wide range of vocabulary to describe the many parti-coloured aspects of nature, ” dappled, couple-colour, and freckled” being examples of these. But it is the use of the word “fickle” that I found rather striking, as one would normally use the word to refer to a person with mood swings almost like personality changes. But here it is used to emphasise the speed and acceptance of change in the landscape and environment.
I also noticed that the opening of “Snowflakes” featured many examples of ‘O’ assonance: “Out…bosom…cloud-folds…Over…woodlands brown…soft…slow and snow.” It is almost as if the poet is purposely repeatedly using words that contain the letter ‘O’ (physically circular in shape) to bombard the page, reminding us of a multitude of snowflakes as they completely cover the ground. The poet continues to acknowledge the over – powering nature that the snow possesses in
” Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest fields forsaken”
The use of the word ‘forsaken’ reiterates Longfellow’s notion that the snow can capture anything in its path. As well as imagery the poet also used such poetic devices as onomatopoeia and sibilance to relate the descent of snow to the ground, “Silent and soft and slow” which I feel he does and to great affect.
Even from the title of Hopkins’ poem we know his focus is on the infinite variety of all ‘dappled things’, uniting in the single, uniform reality of God’s creating power. “Snowflakes” on the other hand focuses on the one phenomenon of snow, something that blankets over and makes uniform the entire and varied landscape. I also noticed that in “Pied Beauty” the subject of the poem is introduced in the first line “Glory be to God for dappled things”. This plainly states that the poem shall be a song of thanks to God for everything in nature of a ‘pied’ quality. “Snowflakes” on the other hand describes a journey made by the subject and where it originated from rather than stating plainly what it is. The actual subject of snow is not explicitly mentioned until the end of the first stanza (although it may be argued that the title of the poem is an obvious indication of the subject matter).
From reading the poems it is easy to notice the different attitudes of the narrators of the poems. The tone in “Pied Beauty” is one of joyous exuberance by use of language such as “Glory be” and “Praise”. On the contrary “Snowflakes” takes a more mellow, introspective almost restless approach in describing its subject “troubled heart” and “secret of despair” are some examples of this. Also in “Pied |Beauty” the poem is celebratory and is about beauty. “Snowflakes” on the other hand is simple and complex and is beauty.
After studying both poems in depth I feel that through the work of Longfellow I now would see and appreciate the complexity in the simplicity of snowflakes. But overall I prefer the work of Hopkins. His exploitation of the verbal subtleties and music of English, of the use of alliteration, repetition and a highly compressed syntax were all in the interest of projecting deep personal experiences, including his sense of God’s mystery, grandeur and mercy in “all things counter”.
He called the energising prosodic element of his verse ‘sprung rhythm’ in which each foot may consist of one stressed syllable instead of the regular number of syllables used in traditional rhythm. The result is a muscular verse, intense and vibrant that combines accuracy of observation, daring imagination, deep feeling and intellectual depth. All in all a wonderful piece that for me as of yet shall remain one of the most touching I have read.

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