Thomas Hardy’s “A Light Snow-Fall after Frost” is a poem in which almost nothing happens, and one could spend a lifetime contemplating it. One man stands at a window and watches as another emerges from the falling snow, and then another. It’s as stark as a scene out of Beckett:
“On the flat road a man at last appears:
How much his whitening hairs
Owe to the settling snow’s mute anchorage,
And how much to a life’s rough pilgrimage,
One cannot certify.
“The frost is on the wane,
And cobwebs hanging close outside the pane
Pose as festoons of thick white worsted there,
Of their pale presence no eye being aware
Till the rime made them plain.
“A second man comes by;
His ruddy beard brings fire to the pallid scene:
His coat is faded green;
Hence seems it that his mien
Wears something of the dye
Of the berried holm-trees that he passes nigh.
“The snow-feathers so gently swoop that though
But half an hour ago
The road was brown, and now is starkly white,
A watcher would have failed defining quite
When it transformed it so.”
So many good things to wonder at and admire. At the end of the first stanza, “certify” rhymes with nothing, at least until the third stanza, a strategy of deferral that encourages an impression of expectation – precisely the narrator’s state of mind. Hardy renders much in little. “At last” in the poem’s first line suggests our man has been standing at the window for some time, and “a life’s rough pilgrimage” turns the view into an allegory. Likening cobwebs to “thick white worsted” is inspired and thematically precise, and Hardy puns with “rime.” In the final stanza, we remember that time’s passage is invisible.
Larkin noted that one can browse in Hardy “for years and years and still be surprised.” His poems are admired by the right people – Larkin, E.A. Robinson and Yvor Winters. “A Light Snow-Fall after Frost” is bracketed in Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925) by lesser winter poems – the better-known “Snow in the Suburbs” and “Winter Night in Woodland.” “A Light Snow-Fall” is a rough-hewn technical marvel, but that’s not the source of its power. The novelist William Maxwell, asked in a 1995 interview what he had learned as fiction editor for The New Yorker, said, “'After 40 years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.”