First Snow in Alsace by Richard Wilbur: Summary and Critical Analysis

First Snow in Alsace is one of the formal, metaphysical poems of Wilbur in which he has described the coming of the first snow of the year, and enlarged the meaning of the incident to make it symbolically suggest the transformation of things as a terrible reality of war and hostility envelops them. The eight tercets and a final concluding line mainly describe the coming of snow, but from the very first line the poet uses many conceits and metaphors that are suggestive of the symbolic meaning of the coming of the snow.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

In simple terms, that is the coming of the all-enveloping chill of hostility that was actually the cause of wars. In the very first line the personal tells us that “the snow came down last night like moths that burned on the moon”. Such a description is by no means literal. The snow fell till dawn and covered the town “with simple cloths”. The cloth is evocative of the coffin cloth. We usually look at the snow with a sense of excitement, but in the context of the poem it evokes a very different mood and meaning; terrible shrouding of the natural beauty and life with a lifeless covering that is deceptively beautiful but fatal.

Written in the background of Second World War, the poem “First Snow in Alsace” depicts a disorderly state of the dead soldiers and their goods, buried under snow. It provides a devastated sight of the battlefield: scattered shell bursts, entangled railings, crevasses lawn. The whole scenario has changed into ugliness, yet oblivious of all that, the snow covered the area with its white cloths. The heaved sacks of ration looks white snow covered domes, weapons and ammunition have also been capped with snow. Moreover, people in early morning walk with their disguised body and face caused by residual flakes of snow. They are astonished to witness the white vaulted sight of battlefield with several lives lost, things chaotic and situation awful. The same snow indiscriminately falls to decorate children’s windows. The effect of snow is same all over. The penultimate and last stanza holds the crucial key of the poem. The night guard’s boastful expression that he was the first to see the snow is ironical in a sense that he has lost interest in the death and devastation perhaps due to his long experience of this sight. ‘Ten first snows back in thought’ suggested the recurrence of this sight. For him, the death and destruction make no difference; he is excited to count the frequency of his seeing first snow.

The beautiful snow gives the sentry some kind of pleasure; even if he knows that it is destructive of the beauty and life around: the beautiful can change man even in time of duress. War is horrible because man permits it in spite of such simple childlike pleasures as a night sentry on being “the first to see the snow”. The poet does not flail at the war’s barbarity but concentrates on the lonely sentry who is momentarily distracted by snow swirls and snow design so that he ignores the whitening shell-holes, the snow drifts on the ammunition stacks, and ineradicably, the “snow fall (that) fills the eyes of soldiers dead a little while.” Estrangement of a violent kind is clearly at the thematic core of the poem. One cannot think now of snow without also envisioning burned moths, wrecked homes, and such scenes of death as the poem goes on to describe; “beyond the town a mile… of soldiers dead a little while,” the calm hush is also that of desolation. “Frost makes marvelous designs”: it makes the ghastly mess or yet more hideous “designs” of war. On the other, such warmth and recollected freshness of perception, however marred, may revive on otherwise lethal freezing of the night guard’s sensibility. Without it, the eyes of the survivors may be as snow-blinded as those of the dead. The present snow in the poem is as a benediction in the midst of violence. In the first stanza the moon figures as an enlarged domestic lamp and the snow disposes cloths across a ravaged landscape, while in the last stanza, the sobering, forced adulthood, of war falls away and returns a soldier to the innocence of childhood. Everywhere the evidence of evil is veiled. Making us conscious all the time of the machinery of war buried beneath the purifying snow. A snow-decked roof has always been a stereotype of the purifying snow. A snow-decked roof has always been a stereotype of Christmas cheer, but here the snow is clasping only a domestic shell – all the family values of the season of have been lost to the violence and fission of war. The poem deals with the two antagonist themes of beauty and destruction, but they are embedded in the central image of the snow. It reveals the tragic truth that there are such things as snow, which is beautiful but destructive. On the other hand, there is also the suggestion that one must not fail to see the beautiful even in the apparently ugly thing in life; one cannot give up life and its beauties and pleasures even in times of war.

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Shrestha, Roma. "First Snow in Alsace by Richard Wilbur: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 16 Nov. 2013,

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