A WINTER IDYL
Images of the Embracing Intimacy of Snow and the Power of Fire.
“WINDHAM FEBURARY 14.—Winter certainly took another flight… Yesterday was the day to read “Snowbound,” again—or do you know it by heart?” W.S. Harris, The Exeter Newsletter.
I didn’t know Snowbound at all, so while the snow was falling today, I read this poem written by John Greenleaf Whittier in 1865. In it, a snowstorm brings normal daily activity to a halt, allowing time to ponder the larger realities of life. Whittier eulogizes his family and the rural past. Written in the context of the destruction of the Civil War and the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution it was a popular success. The full poem runs for 747 lines and can be read at the Poetry Foundation-Snowbound.
…For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where’er it fell
To make the coldness visible.
Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about.
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed.
The house-dog on his paws outspread
Laid to the fire his drowsy head,
The cat’s dark silhouette on the wall.
A couchant tiger’s seemed to fall;
And, for the winter fireside meet,
Between the andirons’ straddling feet,
The mug of cider simmered slow,
The apples sputtered in a row,
And, close at hand, the basket stood
With nuts from brown October’s wood.
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.
O Time and Change! – with hair as gray
As was my sire’s that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!…
Found in Whittier’s introduction to Snowbound is a poem by Emerson and a quote illustrating the ancient spirituality of fire.
“As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits, which be Angels of Light, are augmented not only by the Divine light of the Sun, but also by our common Wood Fire: and as the Celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same.” — Cor. Agrippa, Occult Philosophy, Book I.ch. v.
The Snowstorm (in part) by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of Storm.’
This is all in a round about way bringing us to the principle of spirituality that is found in the essence of fire. Who hasn’t sat transfixed in front of the flames of a fire losing all trace of time. “Fire is one of the four classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and science. It was commonly associated with the qualities of energy, assertiveness, and passion. In one Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to protect the otherwise helpless humans, but was punished for this charity.
St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, In Dark Night of the Soul, uses a beautiful depiction of fire to illustrate the path to spiritual Oneness with God. Essentially, we begin as green wood, with which it is very difficult to start the spiritual flame, so the fire often goes out, having to be restarted many times before a self sustaining fire can be established. Eventually, the fire burns brighter and hotter as we become one with God. Of course, the wood can never become the flame, but it can become totally subsumed within it. That’s the hope offered by the saint.
The 3,500 year Zoroastrian religion has fire as a central symbol. In ancient times, when Zoroastrians built no temples, possessed no religious imagery and had no books on the teachings of the faith, light served as the focus of their religious practices. Fire (athra / atarsh / atash) was a means of producing light. When using a flame, a source of light, as the focus while contemplating the spiritual aspects of one’s life, the symbolisms carried by the fire and the light it produced, conveyed some of the essential principles of the faith. For instance, carrying a fire into a dark place dispels the darkness giving us the metaphor of the light of wisdom banishing the darkness of ignorance. From wisdom are derived the principles of justice and order. The temporal fire was also the symbol of the cosmic fire of creation, a fire that continues to pervade every element of creation. In this sense, fire takes on a much broader meaning than a flame, a meaning we discuss below. Light and fire were also essential elements for sustaining life…Zarathushtra makes reference to the mainyu athra – the spiritual fire – as one that illuminates the path of asha. The universal laws of asha govern and bring order to the spiritual and material existences. Asha is available, through individual choice, to bring order to human thoughts, words and deeds. As an ethical choice, asha principled, honest, beneficent, ordered, lawful living.” HeritageInstitute.com
Enough said about this radical personification of snow and fire, its time to head home and start a blaze of my own. And to remember the more down to earth words of Robert Dinsmoor, Windham’s own “Rustic Bard”:
“And at my door a pile of wood, A rousing fire to warm my blood— Blessed sight to see!”