While some deplore it, snow cover attracts many people, writers especially, when it first covers the ground and changes the usual view of things. In the countryside, snow cover might remain untouched and therefore quite appealing for some time. But in the cities, the snowscape gets mucked up quickly by our incessant industry — plowing, shoveling, de-icing, sanding away the inconvenience of it. Still, the snowy scene draws writers not only for its newness, but also for the awe and fear it can stir in the observer.
With little wind behind it, descending snow falls quietly and calmly while it re-creates the landscape. Oncoming snow accompanied by heavy, dark clouds and blowing winds brings on change so suddenly, it stirs fear in the observer. Out in the elements, our instincts tell us to prepare for fight or flight in the most primal conflict, human versus nature. However, a snowstorm can also invoke the sublime, a feeling that arises from yoking beauty and terror, creating a moment of overriding clarity. These circumstances arise in Emily Brontë’s “Spellbound”:
The giant trees are bending, their bare boughs weighed with snow. And the storm is fast descending, and yet I cannot go.
In a seemingly simple poem, Brontë creates the intersection of heightened fear with intense admiration, which causes near-paralysis, or stasis, in the observer. This fixation makes the speaker’s situation all the more precarious, so that in the last stanza we hear
Clouds beyond clouds above me, wastes beyond wastes below; but nothing drear can move me; I will not, cannot go.
At this point, the observer stands riveted to the spot, and “nothing drear” can cause her to do what instinct tells her to do — find shelter from a coming storm. Though she may know this landscape as an old familiar, this time she sees with unusual perspicacity: the snow cover lies eerily in weak light while dark, otherworldly figures of trees fix themselves in her imagination. The poem’s incantatory effects are not lost on us either. Maybe the observer feels the chill weather as an embrace, but the approaching storm threatens to overpower her. And so it does; it dazzles her senses, allowing her to understand in an instant her own frailty and temporality. David Baker, in “The Sublime: Origins and Definitions,” describes the experience as “instruction by means of solitary terror.” The sublime is often invoked through landscape that triggers a “magnified sense of out-of-proportionality.”
The beauty of Brontë’s poem lies also in its paradox: readers can step to the edge of oblivion, but from a safe distance. Jane Hirshfield, in Facing the Lion,” says that plainly “certain distance is required” to face overpowering conditions. She cites the example of The Inferno to explain: “The reason Dante is forbidden pity when he looks upon the damned [is that] to feel their fate too intimately would put his own salvation at risk.” Poets, by virtue of their art, are “acceding to fate while at the same time delaying it”; and readers are brought to withering, yet unshakable knowledge of how it is to be in the presence of superhuman, even divine, forces.