Raine and Snow

And this our life exempt from public haunt

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,        

Sermons in stones and good in everything.

– from, William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In response both to this post  titled The Enemy of Contemplation (about overcrowded “blockbuster” exhibitions) and to the onset of the British winter, I’d like to make a case for snow as the Aid to Contemplation.

In the title poem of his first collection in a decade, How Snow Falls (published last week, with the season’s first snow), Craig Raine refers to “this snow, this transfiguration”. The poem begins like this: “Like the unshaven prickle / of a sharpened razor, / this new coldness in the air”; but, as it continues, it is newness – or “transfiguration” – not coldness that comes to the fore.

Few things have the ability to make us see differently – sometimes, snow is one of them. Earthy fields, under thick snow, take on a different character. New-born yet eternal, they don’t fully belong to modern life. The scene in Monet’s 1875 “Snow Scene at Argenteuil” doesn’t look much different from those around rural Britain right now, its telling details snowed-out.

Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875

Monet, 'Snow Scene at Argenteuil' (1875)

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I was struck by the quietness of the place. City sounds were muted by drifts of snow – which, in some place, had levelled-out the pavement and road. Unusable cars lined the main streets, some tyre-deep in snow; pedestrians slipped about, clinging to railings and each other. And, each morning, the whiteness was startling.

Art deals in modulation, narrative, transfiguration. It is newness that makes us consider what we had, and have. What you can’t get in Tate Modern on a busy Sunday afternoon, you might find up a snow-capped peak… So, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind.”


This post was originally published at ft.com/arts-extra, for which I work as an editor.

‘How Snow Falls’ by Craig Raine, Atlantic Books £14.99.

 How Snow Falls

Like the unshaven prickle 

of a sharpened razor,

this new coldness in the air, 

the pang

of something intangible. 

Filling our eyes,

the sinusitis of perfume 

without the perfume.

And then love’s vertigo, 

love’s exactitude,

this snow, this transfiguration

we never quite get over.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on December 14, 2010.

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