Memories Of Snow In Literature

Memories Of Snow In Literature
Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s works are full of references to Kashmir and snow Photo Credit: Getty Images

For most of us who grew up in warmer lands, the white powder from heaven was beyond the tentacles of our imagination—except through literature

Uttaran Das Gupta
February 14 , 2023
11 Min Read

English novelist Aldous Huxley in his 1929 essay “Wordsworth in the Tropics” ridicules, in typical modernist fashion, the pantheism of the Romantic poet. Huxley writes that William Wordsworth (1770–1850) could celebrate the mild beauty of nature in poems such as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”) or “The Solitary Reaper,” which schoolchildren all over the Anglophone world read, because he had never experienced the untamed wilderness of a tropical forest. “Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste mild deity who presides over…the cosy sublimities of the Lake District,” writes Huxley. “A few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him.” I read this essay for the first time as an undergraduate student of English literature at a university in Kolkata and immediately sympathised with the sentiment. I had always found Wordsworth’s descriptions of spring and summer—lying in verdant fields, amid daffodils, counting white clouds—incongruous with my experiences of tropical heat and humidity and thunderstorms.

A poignant depiction of the tragic consequences of a helpless child encountering merciless snow is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”


But it was not only the Wordsworthian summer that my classmates and I, sitting in stuffy classrooms under slowly revolving fans, found beyond the tentacles of our imagination; the snow-laden winters of his poems were also the stuff of fantasy. Take, for instance, “Lucy Gray or Solitude,” which was included in Lyrical Ballads (1798), the breakout collection that Wordsworth co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834): At daybreak on a hill they stood That overlook’d the Moor; And thence they saw the Bridge of Wood A furlong from their door. And now they homeward turn’d, and cry’d “In Heaven we all shall meet!” When in the snow the Mother spied The print of Lucy’s feet.

The poem, written in Germany, is based on a true account of a girl from Yorkshire who got lost in a snowstorm. Wordsworth had heard the story from his sister and poet Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855), but he changed it a little. While the body of the girl from Yorkshire was found by her parent, the poem’s protagonist, Lucy, is never found and becomes one with nature. The snow in this poem is fatal, and prolonged exposure to it results in Lucy’s death. But it is also an agent of transformation, changing the mortal girl into an immortal part of nature, true to Wordsworth’s pantheism.

Cotton Balls

But a more poignant depiction of the tragic consequences of a helpless child encountering merciless snow is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” First published in 1845, the fairy tale, which has been widely adapted for the stage and screen, has been described by American paediatrician and writer Perri Klass as “the saddest, starkest holiday child, the strangest 19th-century combination of sentiment and social realism and holiday imagery.” The story begins: “It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets.

In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.” The girl is scared of returning home because she fears her father will beat her up for not earning anything. Driven to desperation by the cold, she hides in a lane and lights one matchstick after another to keep warm. In the glow, she imagines everything that might give her comfort—an iron stove, a roasted goose, a Christmas tree, her kind grandmother. Eventually, she succumbs to hypothermia, and her grandmother’s soul carries her off to heaven. “But the story doesn’t end with that triumphant ascent. It ends the next morning, with the frozen dead body of the Little Match Girl found, the burnt-out matches clutched between her fingers,” writes Klass in her New York Times article “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Or, The Little Match Girl Syndrome” (1990).

“It ends with a reminder, even in a fairy tale, of harsh sociological reality.” In the same article, Klass points out that the way we now imagine Christmas— tree, turkey, pudding, and lots of happy children—is a product of the 19th century. And one man who is more responsible than the others is Charles Dickens. The BBC reports that the United Kingdom is more likely to experience snow between January and March rather than late December which is usually snowless. But, during the years when Dickens grew up—he was born in 1812—England experienced the coldest winters since the 1690s. The Thames froze in 1814, and London celebrated its last frost fair with an elephant being led across the river.

These images fed into his imagination as he wrote the eternal classic, A Christmas Carol (1843). There is a lot of snow in the short novel, and a sickly child—Tiny Tim. But unlike other sickly children in Dickens’ novels— Smike in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)—Tim does not die. In some ways, perhaps, this idea of hope and redemption made the novel so popular. “In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas,” writes his biographer Peter Ackroyd. This is true even in my tropical hometown, where we decorate artificial pine trees with wads of cotton every Christmas. Thanks to Dickens, it snows even in Kolkata at Christmas. 

In Our Imaginations

For many of my friends who went to Europe or North America for graduate studies, posting pictures of themselves in the snow on Facebook was a rite of passage. (There was no Instagram then.) For others, still enduring endless summers back home, aggravated by frequent power cuts, even the imagination of snow could provide relief. One of my friends claimed that she frequently read Russians—Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Ivan Turgenev (1881–1883)—in hardy Soviet-era Progress Publishers editions to beat the heat and humidity. One of her favourites was Dostoevsky’s long short story “White Nights” (1848), which is strange because there is hardly any snow in it. The narrative is spread over four nights and one morning in late-May to late-July, when the skies over St Petersburg do not ever completely darken. The action is narrated by a poor young man whose name or occupation is never revealed. He falls in love with a young woman, but the love remains unrequited as she loves someone else. 

Illustration of people playing golf and skating on frozen water, probably the River Thames c. 18th century

This story has somehow proven to be a favourite for filmmakers around the world. As Ronald Meyer, a scholar of Russian literature writes in his essay “Dostoevskii’s ‘White Nights’: The Dreamer Goes Abroad” (2016), it has been adapted for the screen at least 12 times— thrice each in Russian and Hindi, twice each in English and French, and once in Iranian and Italian. While two of the most famous adaptations are Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti “Bianche” (1957) and Robert Bresson’s “Quatre nuits d’un rêveur” (1971), our readers would probably be more familiar with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Saawariya” (2007). While the source text has no snow, most cinematic adaptations are full of white powder from the skies. Like my friend who imagined the white nights of the title to be snowy nights, Visconti and Bhansali cannot resist the temptation of depicting snowfall in their cinematic diegetic space. Their treatment, of course, is very different.

As Meyer writes, Visconti, a neorealist filmmaker known for Marxist narratives, wanted to create a dreamlike landscape. So, Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell frolic in the snow. Bhansali’s indulgent dreamscape, composed of different shades of blue and black and purple, is very different from the black-and-white texture of Visconti’s film, but here too, Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor throw snowballs at each other, revealing the imaginative possibilities of crystalised water.

Snowflake, Memory

Writers from South Asia barely have snow in their work because of their lack of experience of the phenomenon. KashmiriAmerican poet Agha Shahid Ali’s (1949– 2001) lyrical works are full of references to Kashmir and snow. For instance, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight” from his book “The Country Without a Post Office” (1997) has, in the years since, become a metonym for Kashmiri desire for self-determination. The poem opens with a compelling image of frozen memory:  “One must wear jewelled ice in dry plains / to will the distant mountains to glass.” A little later, snow and ash are indistinguishable and become symbols of grief in a conflictridden place: “From windows we hear / grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall / on us, like ash.” But perhaps my favourite depiction of snow in an Ali poem is “Snow on the Desert” from his book A Nostalgist’s Map of History (1991).

 The magic of experiencing snow is even more evocative because of the apparent prosaic tone of these lines: On January 19, 1987, as I very early in the morning drove my sister to Tucson International, suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street the sliding doors of the fog were opened, and the snow, which had fallen all night, now sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants, its mineral-hard colors extinguished, wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.

The poem is divided into three short parts. In the first part, Ali describes the drive to the airport and the encounter with the snow-white landscape. The second part describes the natural and human phenomena in the Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico. This is a landscape Ali would have become familiar with in the mid1980s when he studied for an MFA at the University of Arizona. However, the third part, which describes a Begum Akhtar concert in New Delhi in 1971, brings together the idea of melting snow and memories: in New Delhi one night as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out. It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War, perhaps there were sirens, air-raid warnings. But the audience, hushed, did not stir. The microphone was dead, but she went on singing, and her voice was coming from far away, as if she had already died. And just before the lights did flood her again, melting the frost of her diamond into rays. 

As Manan Kapoor, Ali’s biographer writes in “A Map of Longings” (2021), the poet was deeply infatuated with the ghazal singer as a young man. According to some sources, his eventual departure to the US was prompted by his sense of loss after Akhtar died in 1974. While she appears in several of Ali’s poems, in this one, the image of snow in a desert is as incongruous to the memories of Akhtar as a Wordsworthian summer would be in a tropical classroom, but the alchemy of the natural phenomenon fuses it all together. It is not only the magic of snow or memories but also of poetry. Notable exclusions: Robert Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923), Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), Osip Mandelstam’s “Alone I stare into frost’s white face” (1937), Italo Calvino’s “If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller” (1979), Orhan Pamuk’s” Snow” (2002), and several vivid depictions of nuclear winter or climate change frost in apocalyptic fiction and poetry. 

ALSO READ:  Grab A Rug: The Namda From Kashmir

RELATED: Kashmir’s Winter Of Content: Memories Of Chilai Kalan


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