Émile Nelligan

“Ah! Comme la neige a neigé!” might be one of the most

perfect lines in poetry. A sentence of five monosyllables

that stops cold on a word become its double. It belongs

to Émile Nelligan and was written in 1898, right before

the Québécois poet was locked away in an asylum

where he died, alone and forgotten, forty-three years later.

What is it about that simple line that makes me happy?

How it swoons. How the exclamation it opens with — “Ah!” —

gives us a poet in thrall to the world as it is being felt.

How it conjures up an entire weather system just with the trick

of repeating “neige” twice, making the word both noun

and verb, and loading our senses with an extra syllable.

Six words about sky disbursing snow. Six words that build

on themselves, recreating the plenitude they describe.

Few translators have understood that.

“Ah! How the snow falls free!” was Fred Cogswell’s rendering.

“It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!” — Clarissa Aykroyd.

But I think my friend Marc di Saverio translated it best:

“O how the snow has snowed!” See how that flurry of o’s

calls forth, through assonance, memories of zero visibility,

the air overwhelmed? See, too, how the line captures

the way a word can change, not unlike a snow-capped street,

and remain the same? This is as much about language

as it is about how clusters of tiny ice crystals in clouds

join until they become heavy enough to fall to the ground.

It’s also a line that understands the best kind of snow

is not the powdery stuff that drifts in wind, but the kind

that melts around the edges and sticks together to produce

big, thick flakes, des flocons de neige, good for snowballs.

Thus I proclaim it, on this day Anno Domini, no better line exists,

make official and binding a marriage of image and sound

that has me feel like a kid again, staring up into whiteness

tumbling relentlessly from out of nowhere and landing, exactly,

everywhere; or sitting in a warming-up car, wipers going;

or how my sister and I loved to put wet tea towels on the line

and bring them back in, frozen, snowed over with snow.

Comments are closed.