“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
A few weeks ago, we began studying some of the female poets of the Romantic period; Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson, among others. Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem Inscription for an Ice-House resonated with me long after the class; it reminded me of a novel by Eowyn Ivey that I have read recently entitled The Snow Child. The novel incorporates a magical blend of fairy tale and reality, dream-like essences blended with the harsh realities of daily life.
What drew this comparison to my mind was the effortless depiction of the snow in each text. In Barbauld’s Inscription for an Ice House, an atmosphere of oppression is created to personify the snow: “A giant sits; stern Winter” (McCarthy & Kraft 140). This personification is important as it develops the snow as an important, powerful element of nature.
However, this is contrasted to the gentle manner by which the snow protects the fruits of the summer:
“Congeals the melting peach, the nectarine smooth/Burnished and glowing from the sunny wall/Darts sudden frost into the crimson veins/Of the moist berry” (McCarthy & Kraft 140).
It is this contrast that fascinates me: the ability for the snow to be a cold, all-encompassing figure of power, yet a gentle carer of the nature within it.
This contrast can also be seen in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: the Alaskan wilderness brings both a sense of freedom and a crushing sense of loneliness for the character Mabel:
“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found” (Ivey 3)
“No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness. It was beautiful… but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all” (Ivey 8/9)
Essentially, although the silence within nature presents an element of peace, particularly the depictions of snow, it also maintains a sense of loneliness. There is the feeling of being one with nature, yet being a solitary being within it with solitary experiences of it.
Nature presented itself peacefully to Mabel and Jack in The Snow Child as they built their snow child, and presented itself in all of its viciousness when Jack kills a moose to provide for the winter and must remove its innards. There is a sense of humanity causing a conflict to the eerie peace of nature within this Alaskan wilderness.
This can also be seen in Barbauld’s poem, whereby the snow preserves the fruits and labours of the summer, all the while contemplating its release:
“Sullen he plies his task/And on his shaking fingers counts the weeks/Of lingering Summer, mindful of his hour/To rush in whirlwinds forth, and rule the year” (McCarthy & Kraft 140). Again, the reader cannot help but feel as though they are infringing upon a source of natural power not meant for them.
In both texts, there is a sense of conflict between summer and winter, humanity and wilderness. They co-exist merely because they have no other choice – it is a forceful combination to imprison snow in the summer, just as it is to combine humanity with the properties of the cold Alaskan wilderness.
Barbauld’s poem and Ivey’s novel possess a particular beauty in their depiction of nature and wilderness. Though we cannot help but feel, as readers of their texts, that we are infringing upon a beautiful solitude within nature not meant for the eyes of humanity at all.
Barbauld, Anna Letitia. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry & Prose. Ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft. New York: Broadview Press, 2002. Print.
Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2012. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963. Print.