There is none on the ground in Maryland and only patches of it in the grass here in Illinois, but, to so many, snow is the harbinger of Christmas. I think Bing Crosby said it best with, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” As a Chicagoland native, snow has always been an integral part of the holiday season. For this reason, instead of sharing another of my tacky Boothie carols, I am posting here a Civil War era poem.
O the snow, the beautiful snow,
Filling the sky and the earth below!
Over the house-tops, over the street,
Over the heads of the people you meet,
Dancing, Flirting, Skimming along.
Beautiful snow! it can do nothing wrong.
Flying to kiss a fair lady’s cheek;
Clinging to lips in a frolicsome freak;
Beautiful snow, from the heavens above,
Pure as an angel and fickle as love!
O the snow, the beautiful snow!
How the flakes gather and laugh as they go!
Whirling about in its maddening fun,
It plays in its glee with every one.
Chasing, Laughing, Hurrying by,
It lights up the face and it sparkles the eye;
And even the dogs, with a bark and a bound,
Snap at the crystals that eddy around.
The town is alive, and its heart in a glow,
To welcome the coming of beautiful snow.
How the wild crowd go swaying along,
Hailing each other with humor and song!
How the gay sledges like meteors flash by,
Bright for the moment, then lost to the eye!
Ringing, Swinging, Dashing they go.
Over the crest of the beautiful snow:
Snow so pure when it falls from the sky,
To be trampled in mud by the crowd rushing by;
To be trampled and tracked by the thousands of feet
Till it blends with the horrible filth in the street.
Once I was pure as the snows,—but I fell:
Fell, like the snow-flakes, from heaven—to hell:
Fell, to be tramped as the filth of the street:
Fell, to be scoffed, to be spit on, and beat.
Pleading, Cursing, Dreading to die,
Selling my soul to whoever would buy,
Dealing in shame for a morsel of bread,
Hating the living and fearing the dead.
Merciful God! have I fallen so low?
And yet I was once like this beautiful snow!
Once I was fair as the beautiful snow,
With an eye like its crystals, a heart like its glow;
Once I was loved for my innocent grace,
Flattered and sought for the charm of my face.
Father, Mother, Sisters all,
God, and myself, I have lost by my fall.
The veriest wretch that goes shivering by
Will take a wide sweep, lest I wander too nigh;
For all that is on or about me, I know
There is nothing that’s pure but the beautiful snow.
How strange it should be that this beautiful snow
Should fall on a sinner with nowhere to go!
How strange it would be, when the night comes again,
If the snow and the ice struck my desperate brain!
Fainting, Freezing, Dying alone,
Too wicked for prayer, too weak for my moan
To be heard in the crash of the crazy town,
Gone mad in its joy at the snow’s coming down;
To lie and to die in my terrible woe,
With a bed and a shroud of the beautiful snow!
“Beautiful Snow” was originally published in Harper’s Weekly on November 27, 1858. The poem contrasts the purity of new fallen snow with a fallen woman who has lost hers.
The 1924 book, Famous Single Poems and the Controversies Which Have Raged Around Them by Burton Stevenson, provides a wonderful critique of the poem and the reason for its success:
“One of the most popular of such recitations was entitled ‘Beautiful Snow,’ and purported to be the tragic revery of an out-cast as she makes her way along the wintry streets of a great city in the midst of a driving snow-storm. It was ‘sure-fire stuff,’ especially when recited by one of the gentler sex, because to the hopeless melancholy which was once so popular in pieces of this sort it added discussion, or at least mention, of a subject strictly taboo.
The Scarlet Woman was a phenomenon to which polite society at that time not only shut its eyes, but of which it pretended to be unaware. If she was pictured at all, it was as despairing and hopeless, ceaselessly bemoaning her fall from virtue, drinking the dregs of misery and want, with remorse ever gnawing at her heart, and finally dying of starvation amid wretched surroundings.
The idea that a woman who had taken the wrong turning could ever come back was anathema. In fact, society was banded together to prevent her coming back. To contend that such a woman had any claim to consideration, that she might be a good sort at bottom, and that she might eventually make a success of her life and be happy and contented in her last days was to incur grave suspicion. French fiction was held to be vicious and degraded because it occasionally developed such a theme. The fact that she died of consumption was the one thing that palliated the sins of Camille. Nobody knew exactly what to make of Trilby, though her death, too, was to her credit; but everybody agreed that for Little Billee to have married her would have been a crime against good morals. For sin must be punished.
‘Beautiful Snow’ laid the colors on exactly as society liked to imagine them.”
Since Harper’s carried the poem with no author byline, many people came forward trying to claim the composition as their own. Stevenson stated that, “Probably no other poem in American literature has been so fought over,” as “Beautiful Snow”. Sensationally romantic stories of the poem being found on the body of a dead woman on the street abounded. The true author was John Whitaker Watson and he would publish a book of his poems including “Beautiful Snow” in 1869. Though Watson would write many poems, he is known today for this “one hit wonder”.
Many individuals would perform public recitations of this poem to adoring audiences. While visiting the city of Washington in the spring months of 1865, a young lady named Miss Porterfield heard the poem expertly recited by a young man:
“He was a very attractive man, winning and softvoiced, and more or less of a favorite among those who lived in or frequented the hotel. With a fine head, a figure handsomely proportioned from the waist upward, and graceful and easy manners, he soon fascinated me and my girl friend. On several occasions I heard him recite in the parlor, and his recitations never failed to attract and impress those who happened to hear him. I remember his rendition of ‘Beautiful Snow’ and Poe’s ‘Raven,’ as well as numerous plays with which he was familiar. He often talked to me and my companion, and, knowing that we were school-girls, tried to impress us with the need of speaking clearly and understanding; and on one occasion asked us to read a few lines from Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII,’ carefully criticizing our expression and accent as we read. Although we were mere misses, he treated us with the utmost deference and respect, and we finally became so well acquainted with him that he gave each of us his photograph, signed by himself.”
This man, as you were probably already aware, was John Wilkes Booth. Even during this period of his life when he was away from the stage, Booth still played a part. He enjoyed the close knit performance of giving impromptu readings at his hotel, The National. George Alfred Townsend’s, The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, also speaks of Booth’s enjoyment of Watson’s poem:
Admittedly, aside from the snow in it, “Beautiful Snow” is not a particularly Christmas-y poem. Nevertheless, I felt it was an appropriate one to share on this day. When reproduced in anthologies and selected poetry books many versions of “Beautiful Snow” would include one final stanza, an addendum to Watson’s original poem. Contrary to Stevenson’s critique that “society was banded together to prevent” the redemption of a fallen woman, the revisionist ending speaks of God’s love for all downtrodden souls.
I hope that during this day and this season, we all remember to show our fellow men peace and love. To quote my buddy Bing again, “May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases be white.”
Famous Poems from Bygone Days by Martin Gardner
Famous Single Poems and the Controversies Which Have Raged Around Them by Burton Stevenson
The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth by GATH