On Emily Dickinson’s poem about snowfall – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘It sifts from leaden sieves’ is a wonderful Emily Dickinson poem; it is also a beautiful winter poem. In a few lines, Dickinson captures the movement of the snow and the way it settles upon the winter landscape, rendering the road, the railings of the fence, and the lampposts different and strange. Below is the poem, followed by a few words of analysis.
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.
This poem describes the snow that falls (or ‘sifts’) from the dark grey clouds in the sky (‘leaden sieves’). ‘Sifts’ is a nice use of what is normally a transitive verb as an intransitive verb (you sift something, e.g. flour; things don’t sift); it also chimes with ‘sieves’, immediately evoking the metaphor of flour being sifted through a sieve. The metaphors continue: the snow is ‘alabaster wool’ and like ‘fleeces’, a ‘crystal veil’ coating the roads and the fences, eradicating our former memories of the landscape before it was coated in a covering of snow.
The poem is a beautiful description of the way snow obscures familiar objects, rendering them strange and ghostly to us. Who but Emily Dickinson would have thought to describe snow as ‘alabaster wool’? But the most remarkable thing about the poem is that it never mentions snow by name. It doesn’t have to. ‘It sifts from leaden sieves’ (like ‘It rains’, that common idiom where the precise meaning of ‘it’ is hard to define) captures the spectral beauty of snow much more effectively.
Discover more classic Emily Dickinson poems with ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died‘, and ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘ or check out our top ten greatest Emily Dickinson poems. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Trees in the snow (picture credit: Larisa Koshkina), via Public Domain Pictures.