The three stood listening to a fresh access
Of wind that caught against the house a moment,
Gulped snow, and then blew free again—the Coles
Dressed, but dishevelled from some hours of sleep,
Meserve belittled in the great skin coat he wore.
Meserve was first to speak. He pointed backward
Over his shoulder with his pipe-stem, saying,
“You can just see it glancing off the roof
Making a great scroll upward toward the sky,
Long enough for recording all our names on.—
I think I’ll just call up my wife and tell her
I’m here—so far—and starting on again.
I’ll call her softly so that if she’s wise
And gone to sleep, she needn’t wake to answer.”
Three times he barely stirred the bell, then listened.
“Why, Lett, still up? Lett, I’m at Cole’s. I’m late.
I called you up to say Good-night from here
Before I went to say Good-morning there.—
I thought I would.— I know, but, Lett—I know—
I could, but what’s the sense? The rest won’t be
So bad.— Give me an hour for it.— Ho, ho,
Three hours to here! But that was all up hill;
The rest is down.— Why no, no, not a wallow:
They kept their heads and took their time to it
Like darlings, both of them. They’re in the barn.—
My dear, I’m coming just the same. I didn’t
Call you to ask you to invite me home.—”
He lingered for some word she wouldn’t say,
Said it at last himself, “Good-night,” and then,
Getting no answer, closed the telephone.
The three stood in the lamplight round the table
With lowered eyes a moment till he said,
“I’ll just see how the horses are.”
Both the Coles said together. Mrs. Cole
Added: “You can judge better after seeing.—
I want you here with me, Fred. Leave him here,
Brother Meserve. You know to find your way
Out through the shed.”
“I guess I know my way,
I guess I know where I can find my name
Carved in the shed to tell me who I am
If it don’t tell me where I am. I used
“You tend your horses and come back.
Fred Cole, you’re going to let him!”
“Well, aren’t you?
How can you help yourself?”
“I called him Brother.
Why did I call him that?”
“It’s right enough.
That’s all you ever heard him called round here.
He seems to have lost off his Christian name.”
“Christian enough I should call that myself.
He took no notice, did he? Well, at least
I didn’t use it out of love of him,
The dear knows. I detest the thought of him
With his ten children under ten years old.
I hate his wretched little Racker Sect,
All’s ever I heard of it, which isn’t much.
But that’s not saying—Look, Fred Cole, it’s twelve,
Isn’t it, now? He’s been here half an hour.
He says he left the village store at nine.
Three hours to do four miles—a mile an hour
Or not much better. Why, it doesn’t seem
As if a man could move that slow and move.
Try to think what he did with all that time.
And three miles more to go!”
“Don’t let him go.
Stick to him, Helen. Make him answer you.
That sort of man talks straight on all his life
From the last thing he said himself, stone deaf
To anything anyone else may say.
I should have thought, though, you could make him hear you.”
“What is he doing out a night like this?
Why can’t he stay at home?”
“He had to preach.”
“It’s no night to be out.”
“He may be small,
He may be good, but one thing’s sure, he’s tough.”
“And strong of stale tobacco.”
“He’ll pull through.’
“You only say so. Not another house
Or shelter to put into from this place
To theirs. I’m going to call his wife again.”
“Wait and he may. Let’s see what he will do.
Let’s see if he will think of her again.
But then I doubt he’s thinking of himself
He doesn’t look on it as anything.”
“He shan’t go—there!”
“It is a night, my dear.”
“One thing: he didn’t drag God into it.”
“He don’t consider it a case for God.”
“You think so, do you? You don’t know the kind.
He’s getting up a miracle this minute.
Privately—to himself, right now, he’s thinking
He’ll make a case of it if he succeeds,
But keep still if he fails.”
“Keep still all over.
He’ll be dead—dead and buried.”
“Such a trouble!
Not but I’ve every reason not to care
What happens to him if it only takes
Some of the sanctimonious conceit
Out of one of those pious scalawags.”
“Nonsense to that! You want to see him safe.”
“You like the runt.”
“Don’t you a little?”
I don’t like what he’s doing, which is what
You like, and like him for.”
“Oh, yes you do.
You like your fun as well as anyone;
Only you women have to put these airs on
To impress men. You’ve got us so ashamed
Of being men we can’t look at a good fight
Between two boys and not feel bound to stop it.
Let the man freeze an ear or two, I say.—
He’s here. I leave him all to you. Go in
And save his life.— All right, come in, Meserve.
Sit down, sit down. How did you find the horses?”
“And ready for some more? My wife here
Says it won’t do. You’ve got to give it up.”
“Won’t you to please me? Please! If I say please?
Mr. Meserve, I’ll leave it to your wife.
What did your wife say on the telephone?”
Meserve seemed to heed nothing but the lamp
Or something not far from it on the table.
By straightening out and lifting a forefinger,
He pointed with his hand from where it lay
Like a white crumpled spider on his knee:
“That leaf there in your open book! It moved
Just then, I thought. It’s stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward,
I’ve had my eye on it to make out which;
If forward, then it’s with a friend’s impatience—
You see I know—to get you on to things
It wants to see how you will take, if backward
It’s from regret for something you have passed
And failed to see the good of. Never mind,
Things must expect to come in front of us
A many times—I don’t say just how many—
That varies with the things—before we see them.
One of the lies would make it out that nothing
Ever presents itself before us twice.
Where would we be at last if that were so?
Our very life depends on everything’s
Recurring till we answer from within.
The thousandth time may prove the charm.— That leaf!
It can’t turn either way. It needs the wind’s help.
But the wind didn’t move it if it moved.
It moved itself. The wind’s at naught in here.
It couldn’t stir so sensitively poised
A thing as that. It couldn’t reach the lamp
To get a puff of black smoke from the flame,
Or blow a rumple in the collie’s coat.
You make a little foursquare block of air,
Quiet and light and warm, in spite of all
The illimitable dark and cold and storm,
And by so doing give these three, lamp, dog,
And book-leaf, that keep near you, their repose;
Though for all anyone can tell, repose
May be the thing you haven’t, yet you give it.
So false it is that what we haven’t we can’t give;
So false, that what we always say is true.
I’ll have to turn the leaf if no one else will.
It won’t lie down. Then let it stand. Who cares?”
“I shouldn’t want to hurry you, Meserve,
But if you’re going— Say you’ll stay, you know?
But let me raise this curtain on a scene,
And show you how it’s piling up against you.
You see the snow-white through the white of frost?
Ask Helen how far up the sash it’s climbed
Since last we read the gage.”
“It looks as if
Some pallid thing had squashed its features flat
And its eyes shut with overeagerness
To see what people found so interesting
In one another, and had gone to sleep
Of its own stupid lack of understanding,
Or broken its white neck of mushroom stuff
Short off, and died against the window-pane.”
“Brother Meserve, take care, you’ll scare yourself
More than you will us with such nightmare talk.
It’s you it matters to, because it’s you
Who have to go out into it alone.”
“Let him talk, Helen, and perhaps he’ll stay.”
“Before you drop the curtain—I’m reminded:
You recollect the boy who came out here
To breathe the air one winter—had a room
Down at the Averys’? Well, one sunny morning
After a downy storm, he passed our place
And found me banking up the house with snow.
And I was burrowing in deep for warmth,
Piling it well above the window-sills.
The snow against the window caught his eye.
‘Hey, that’s a pretty thought’—those were his words.
‘So you can think it’s six feet deep outside,
While you sit warm and read up balanced rations.
You can’t get too much winter in the winter.’
Those were his words. And he went home and all
But banked the daylight out of Avery’s windows.
Now you and I would go to no such length.
At the same time you can’t deny it makes
It not a mite worse, sitting here, we three,
Playing our fancy, to have the snowline run
So high across the pane outside. There where
There is a sort of tunnel in the frost
More like a tunnel than a hole—way down
At the far end of it you see a stir
And quiver like the frayed edge of the drift
Blown in the wind. I like that—I like that.
Well, now I leave you, people.”
We thought you were deciding not to go—
The ways you found to say the praise of comfort
And being where you are. You want to stay.”
“I’ll own it’s cold for such a fall of snow.
This house is frozen brittle, all except
This room you sit in. If you think the wind
Sounds further off, it’s not because it’s dying;
You’re further under in the snow—that’s all—
And feel it less. Hear the soft bombs of dust
It bursts against us at the chimney mouth,
And at the eaves. I like it from inside
More than I shall out in it. But the horses
Are rested and it’s time to say good-night,
And let you get to bed again. Good-night,
Sorry I had to break in on your sleep.”
“Lucky for you you did. Lucky for you
You had us for a half-way station
To stop at. If you were the kind of man
Paid heed to women, you’d take my advice
And for your family’s sake stay where you are.
But what good is my saying it over and over?
You’ve done more than you had a right to think
You could do—now. You know the risk you take
In going on.”
“Our snow-storms as a rule
Aren’t looked on as man-killers, and although
I’d rather be the beast that sleeps the sleep
Under it all, his door sealed up and lost,
Than the man fighting it to keep above it,
Yet think of the small birds at roost and not
In nests. Shall I be counted less than they are?
Their bulk in water would be frozen rock
In no time out to-night. And yet to-morrow
They will come budding boughs from tree to tree
Flirting their wings and saying Chickadee,
As if not knowing what you meant by the word storm.”
“But why when no one wants you to go on?
Your wife—she doesn’t want you to. We don’t,
And you yourself don’t want to. Who else is there?”
“Save us from being cornered by a woman.
Well, there’s”—She told Fred afterward that in
The pause right there, she thought the dreaded word
Was coming, “God.” But no, he only said
“Well, there’s—the storm. That says I must go on.
That wants me as a war might if it came.
Ask any man.”
He threw her that as something
To last her till he got outside the door.
He had Cole with him to the barn to see him off.
When Cole returned he found his wife still standing
Beside the table near the open book,
Not reading it.
“Well, what kind of a man
Do you call that?” she said.
“He had the gift
Of words, or is it tongues, I ought to say?”
“Was ever such a man for seeing likeness?”
“Or disregarding people’s civil questions—
What? We’ve found out in one hour more about him
Than we had seeing him pass by in the road
A thousand times. If that’s the way he preaches!
You didn’t think you’d keep him after all.
Oh, I’m not blaming you. He didn’t leave you
Much say in the matter, and I’m just as glad
We’re not in for a night of him. No sleep
If he had stayed. The least thing set him going.
It’s quiet as an empty church without him.”
“But how much better off are we as it is?
We’ll have to sit here till we know he’s safe.”
“Yes, I suppose you’ll want to, but I shouldn’t.
He knows what he can do, or he wouldn’t try.
Get into bed I say, and get some rest.
He won’t come back, and if he telephones,
It won’t be for an hour or two.”
We can’t be any help by sitting here
And living his fight through with him, I suppose.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Cole had been telephoning in the dark.
Mrs. Cole’s voice came from an inner room:
“Did she call you or you call her?”
You’d better dress: you won’t go back to bed.
We must have been asleep: it’s three and after.”
“Had she been ringing long? I’ll get my wrapper.
I want to speak to her.”
“All she said was,
He hadn’t come and had he really started.”
“She knew he had, poor thing, two hours ago.”
“He had the shovel. He’ll have made a fight.”
“Why did I ever let him leave this house!”
“Don’t begin that. You did the best you could
To keep him—though perhaps you didn’t quite
Conceal a wish to see him show the spunk
To disobey you. Much his wife’ll thank you.”
“Fred, after all I said! You shan’t make out
That it was any way but what it was.
Did she let on by any word she said
She didn’t thank me?”
“When I told her ‘Gone,’
‘Well then,’ she said, and ‘Well then’—like a threat.
And then her voice came scraping slow: ‘Oh, you,
Why did you let him go’?”
“Asked why we let him?
You let me there. I’ll ask her why she let him.
She didn’t dare to speak when he was here.
Their number’s—twenty-one? The thing won’t work.
Someone’s receiver’s down. The handle stumbles.
The stubborn thing, the way it jars your arm!
It’s theirs. She’s dropped it from her hand and gone.”
“Try speaking. Say ‘Hello’!”
“What do you hear?”
“I hear an empty room—
You know—it sounds that way. And yes, I hear—
I think I hear a clock—and windows rattling.
No step though. If she’s there she’s sitting down.”
“Shout, she may hear you.”
“Shouting is no good.”
“Keep speaking then.”
“Hello. Hello. Hello.
You don’t suppose—? She wouldn’t go out doors?”
“I’m half afraid that’s just what she might do.”
“And leave the children?”
“Wait and call again.
You can’t hear whether she has left the door
Wide open and the wind’s blown out the lamp
And the fire’s died and the room’s dark and cold?”
“One of two things, either she’s gone to bed
Or gone out doors.”
“In which case both are lost.
Do you know what she’s like? Have you ever met her?
It’s strange she doesn’t want to speak to us.”
“Fred, see if you can hear what I hear. Come.”
“A clock maybe.”
“Don’t you hear something else?”
“Why, yes, I hear—what is it?”
“What do you say it is?”
“A baby’s crying!
Frantic it sounds, though muffled and far off.”
“Its mother wouldn’t let it cry like that,
Not if she’s there.”
“What do you make of it?”
“There’s only one thing possible to make,
That is, assuming—that she has gone out.
Of course she hasn’t though.”
They both sat down
Helpless. “There’s nothing we can do till morning.”
“Fred, I shan’t let you think of going out.”
“Hold on.” The double bell began to chirp.
They started up. Fred took the telephone.
“Hello, Meserve. You’re there, then!—And your wife?
Good! Why I asked—she didn’t seem to answer.
He says she went to let him in the barn.—
We’re glad. Oh, say no more about it, man.
Drop in and see us when you’re passing.”
She has him then, though what she wants him for
I don’t see.”
“Possibly not for herself.
Maybe she only wants him for the children.”
“The whole to-do seems to have been for nothing.
What spoiled our night was to him just his fun.
What did he come in for?—To talk and visit?
Thought he’d just call to tell us it was snowing.
If he thinks he is going to make our house
A halfway coffee house ’twixt town and nowhere——”
“I thought you’d feel you’d been too much concerned.”
“You think you haven’t been concerned yourself.”
“If you mean he was inconsiderate
To rout us out to think for him at midnight
And then take our advice no more than nothing,
Why, I agree with you. But let’s forgive him.
We’ve had a share in one night of his life.
What’ll you bet he ever calls again?”
A narrative in the manner of Frost’s better-known “The Death of the Hired Man,” this poem also presents a couple, Fred and Helen Cole, discussing the plight of a man, Meserve, who at the opening has disrupted their sleep in the middle of the night. Meserve, making his way in a blizzard, has stopped to rest at what appears to be the midpoint of his journey. In the second stanza, he phones his wife to tell her that he will be making his way home from the Coles’ now and to say goodnight before it gets too late. It is clear that his wife is displeased. Only one side of the conversation is recorded, but when Meserve says, “I didn’t / Call you to ask you to invite me home—” it is clear what his wife thinks of his journeying out so late in such dangerous weather. She is silent in response to his tough comment.
Following the phone conversation, Meserve goes out to check his horses and make a better judgment about continuing based on the condition in which he finds them. Mrs. Cole insists that Meserve head to the barn himself, so that she can talk to her husband without Meserve present. The dialogue that follows shows that Helen is not fond of Meserve and that she actually “detest[s] the thought of him / With his ten children under ten years old.” He is a preacher who “seems to have lost off his Christian name,” but he is clearly not of the same faith as Fred and Helen, and this seems to contribute to her disdain.
The ensuing conversation is similar to the one in “The Death of the Hired Man,” where Warren and Mary debate the fate of Silas. Here Fred and Helen consider their responsibility toward Meserve and the possibility of keeping him from a foolish journey. He is out in this weather because he “had to preach,” and Fred believes “[h]e’ll pull through” if he continues, a sort of self-convincing on his part, but he also seems to think that Helen has a chance to make Meserve hear her. Helen decides she should call Meserve’s wife again, as though the two women could somehow unite in the decision that he shouldn’t travel anymore this night and convince the stubborn man to stay at the Coles’.
The tension of the differences between Meserve and the Coles is highlighted by the statement, “One thing: he didn’t drag God into it.” It is clear that Meserve’s company is not wanted and that their differences run deep. Still, there is a country politeness of appearances. In contemplating his death under a pile of snow, Fred declares that he has no reason to care what happens to Meserve if it “takes / Some of the sanctimonious conceit / Out of one of those pious scalawags.” Helen and Fred are ultimately caught between the desire to protect anyone from harm and the desire to let foolishness run its course. Helen is worried and knows that Fred “want[s] to see him safe,” but Fred brings gender into it, arguing that women simply put on airs to impress men and to shame them into behaving with one another.
When Meserve returns from the barn, Helen begs him to reconsider his journey and Meserve rests a bit, beginning to preach about a leaf in a book that cannot determine whether to go backward or forward. Meserve’s monologue seems to have a subtext that acts as a metaphor for his own situation. If the leaf moves forward, “then it’s with a friend’s impatience,” and if it moves backward, “it’s from regret for something you have passed and failed to see the good of.” Meserve’s philosophizing about the leaf is reminiscent of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; Meserve concludes that “nothing / Ever presents itself before us twice,” suggesting that all decisions lead to other decisions, just as choosing the road “less traveled by . . . made all the difference.”
Meserve tells several stories before taking leave. The next is about the snow and about a boy and about not being able to “get too much winter in winter.” The Coles let Meserve ramble on, thinking it means he has decided to stay, but he says his piece and takes his leave. The stories do not shed much light on the situation and seem designed simply to create pause.
Helen puts forth one last effort before Meserve leaves, reminding him of the risk he takes traveling in such weather. In Meserve’s response, Frost’s own attitude toward nature is evident: “Our snow storms as a rule / Aren’t looked on as man-killers,” he says. While Frost often saw nature as wreaking havoc in people’s lives, he rarely attributed actual malevolence to it. Such things simply happened.
While Meserve’s departure is welcome, the Coles will not sleep until he is safely home. The poem takes a gothic turn with phone calls in the night that reach Meserve’s wife but create suspense over Meserve’s not yet having made it home. In the end there is a dangling phone, Helen and Fred straining to hear on the other line, and the threat from the snow, which makes the journey a matter of life or death. At the close Meserve has safely returned and takes the phone, thanking the Coles. The Coles offer a polite response again, and Helen, upon hanging up the phone, adds that the “whole to-do seems to have been for nothing. / What spoiled our night was to him just his fun.” Fred is less critical and claims that they have learned more about him than they had hoped to learn; they have “had a share in one night of his life.” And even though both of them probably feel put out, Fred accuses Helen of having been “too much concerned.”
“Snow” is not about snow, but about the evasive politenesses and tensions of casual neighborly conversation, about what goes on behind closed doors, and about how far we will or will not go to protect others who are not kin, whether it be from nature or from themselves. Frost once said that science cannot tell us how far we will or will not go in friendship for what we can get out of it, and there is a measure of that here. Frost creates tension in the dialogue by revealing just how selfishly we can behave when no one is listening, how intolerant we can be of others who are not within earshot. Meserve’s philosophizing and his role as a preacher are highlighted by the Coles as further reasons to find him disagreeable, but what is most disagreeable is that they have been awakened in the night not only by Meserve’s stay but by their forced concern. They did not ask to be involved in his journey or his subsequent choice of risk. They would have been content to let the snow rage outside, not knowing who was traveling in it or what dangers others might be facing. And yet, Frost’s depiction of the Coles does not cast them as villains. They are just people—people whose private conversations have been revealed for us to identify ourselves in them. Frost has again captured, through careful selection and arrangement of dialogue in everyday language, human vulnerability, peril, weakness, and strength.
The poem was first published in the November 1916 issue of Poetry and later collected in New Hampshire.
Iadonisi, Richard A. “(In)Felicitous Space: The Interior Landscape of ‘Snow,’ ” Robert Frost Review (Fall 1996): 47–53.
Jost, Walter. “Civility and Madness in Robert Frost’s ‘Snow,’ ” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 39, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 27–64.
Miller, Lewis H., Jr. “ ‘Snow’: Frost’s Drama of Belittled People,” Robert Frost Review (Fall 1994): 47–51.
Sears, John F. “The Subversive Performer in Frost’s ‘Snow’ and ‘Out, Out—.’ ” In The Motive for Metaphor: Essays on Modern Poetry, edited by Francis C. Blessington and Guy L. Rotella, 82–92. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.