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Every child has been conditioned to dream of a White Christmas but a large percentage of the world’s population has never seen snow. For some people from different regions of the world, they have never experienced snow- how the sun reflects off of the snow, how it sounds when the first shoe print breaks the perfect blanket of snow- but the imagery and description of snow from literature and media translates these deeper depictions. The memory of snow, while not experienced first hand, is still a memory one identifies with. “Not Only the Eskimos” by Lisel Mueller explores the universal themes of peaceful rebirth, inevitable death, and the celebration of life through the concept of memories with imagery of snow.
The term “white as snow” associates the symbol of snow to rebirth and purity. On page 219, Mueller refers to “the snow Elinor Wylie walked in / in velvet shoes.” Elinor Wylie’s poem, “Velvet Shoes”, offers the imagery of peace and reawakening of a new experience with the addition to the blanket of fresh snow: “Let us walk in the white snow / in a soundless space / With footsteps quiet and slow, / At a tranquil pace, / Under veils of white lace.” White continues to be a theme fusing the idea of purity and peace on the last stanza of Mueller’s piece: “snow as idea of whiteness / as in snowdrop, snow goose, snowball bush, the snow that puts stars in your hair / and you hair, which has turned to snow” (218-219). The delicate description of the white, snow-related objects transitions into the delicate image of snow falling onto the audience’s heads with the image of stars. While the white of the snow signals these calls to rebirth, the ability to produce snow must be accompanied by the cold and decay of winter.
The slumbering silence of the winter- snow can be a sign of danger that impedes injury or death. On page 217, Mueller alludes to the death and danger through the lack of visibility in the Dakota snow: “surreal snow in the Dakotas / when you can’t find your house, your street, / though you are not in a dream / or a science-fiction movie.” The danger of the snow and the fear one feels when its home is obscured is assimilating to the idea of death and, more literally, loss. Whether the reader remembers that image through personal experience or from dramatizations through film, the memory of that danger is felt empathetically and universally. Mueller explores the concept of death further by mentioning “the snow in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” on page 218. James Joyce’s short story on the love lost links to the danger of loss: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Joyce leaves the audience with that final sentence as a contrast of the dead physically outside in the harsh winter and the dead figuratively in relationships of the past. Mueller calls to this literary work to connect the loss of life to the contrary aspects of her piece- the commemoration of life itself.
The contrast of rebirth and death finds balance through the celebration of life. Mueller mentions this idea of the celebration of life through a familiar image of a primary school approaching the winter time. The arts and crafts used to release the energy of elementary school students resulted into the common creation of “paper snow, cut and taped / to the inside of grade-school windows” (218). The recognizable image connects the audience to their own memory of their grade school and the memories of children experiencing that reality, bridging the gap of different generations. The reality of the older generations is expressed in the last stanza of the poem on page 219: “the snow in the back of our heads, / whiter than white, which has to do / with childhood again each year.” With this being the last message the poet gives the audience, it creates the lasting impression of universality. The symbolism of snow to the back of our heads is really the hair on our heads turning white with age. However, the playful description of the whites on our heads as snow ties the following line of childhood together to create cyclical view of life.
Snow has different meaning to each person as each memory hold different meaning to its creator. Two people experiencing an event together will create different memories based off of their perspective. Lisel Mueller’s purpose for writing “Not Only The Eskimos” was not to explore the different types of snow. Her goal was not for audiences to study the differences between “the grainy snow of the Puritans / and snow of soft, fat flakes” or the “guerrilla snow, which comes in the night / and changes the world by morning” (217). Her objective was to create a universal tie for every audience member to call back to images of their own experiences and empathize with others. The poem allows every audience member to recall their image of a White Christmas and remember the wonder of their first snow.
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