“marvelous designs”

First Snow in Alsace

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise

At children’s windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.


Richard Wilbur.                                    Collected poems 1953-2004


Walking out on a frosty morning in the Alsace, I was reminded of the wonderful line “frost makes marvelous designs” from Richard Smith’s poem .

Smith saw action in some of the fiercest final battles of WW2 around Colmar, as the Germans fought to the death to hold on to this long disputed slice of Europe. As part of the American force liberating the Rhinelands he considers that poetry was the only way to make sense out the chaos of conflict and this haunting poem still conveys fragile hope in the midst of the devastation of war.

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