The Snowflake Which Is Now and Hence Forever

The Snowflake Which Is Now and Hence Forever Study Guide

"The Snowflake Which is Now and Hence Forever" by Archibald MacLeish was written later in MacLeish's life, and was, in some ways, an answer to the philosophical, poetic and existential questions he had been posing for years in his other work. After exploring in "Ars Poetica" how poetry should just "be" instead of seeking meaning, and after years of poignantly addressing our powerlessness in the face of nature and time, "The Snowflake Which is Now and Hence Forever" seems to mark the moment where MacLeish works through these main concerns and finds some respite. Not only does the poem deal with the question of leaving a legacy as a poet, but it walks the reader through the mixed feelings that haunt many of us as we anticipate leaving the world upon our death, and not having control over our legacy. By the end of the poem, after lines of lamentation and perhaps some subtle humor around frozen fish, MacLeish comes to the conclusion that life is life, and just having lived is enough. This attitude, of complete presence, is also reflected in MacLeish's many involvements in politics and community service during his life, which allowed him to be engaged wholly in the current time. By writing this poem, MacLeish does not claim to have buried his anxieties about death and making an impression on future generations, but perhaps he has found some catharsis in sharing them.

The poem is short, and slightly cryptic during the first reading, but after a careful assessment, the reader can identify the poem's main concerns. The lines are written in free verse and take the form of a series of questions that are almost conversational, and mimic an internal dialogue. The shifting of perspectives, in this sense, is quite moving because it shows a mind at work, struggling to reach a feeling of clarity and acceptance.

In terms of MacLeish's choice to use the snowflake as a titular tool, it is worth noting that he often drew on techniques used by Romantic poets, despite his established reputation as a Modernist poet. Such techniques include using the natural to engage the philosophical. Further, many important poets had used snow as a symbol before, as well as during, MacLeish’s lifetime; perhaps most famously, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. In this poem, snow is used only once as a metaphor to explore the notion of a distinct life that subsequently becomes swept up in the flow of nature and history. The snowflake is not mentioned again after the title, though MacLeish draws on the initial metaphor of the title to work through his musings about humanity's relationship to writing, as well as more general issues of mortality and posthumous reputation. One should observe that the age-old fantasy that poetry allows the individual to live beyond death has compelled writers since the Renaissance—as in many of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example.