Last time we featured monks, Handel, and John Greenleaf Whittier (Damn, I think I just wrote a sentence that supports a need for the dreaded Oxford Comma!). JGW makes an appearance again today–second day in a row!–in my attempt to make up to the famous “Fireside Poet” for never having once mentioned him in all the five years of this blog’s existence. Well, unless you count the words of Kenneth Koch’s “You were Wearing” in reference to today’s poem: “I smelled the mould of your seaside resort hotel bedroom on your hair held in place by a John Greenleaf Whittier clip. / ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s girls who think that boys are bad.’ Then we read Snowbound together.”
And that little quote, my friends should be remembered when we look into the song that I’ve hitched up to today’s poem.
It’s a classic, a rather long poem, but I think its length is deceiving, as the lines are short and metered couplets, with only four stresses per line that carry you through at a nice gallop, whilst giving the appearance on the page of something that mirrors its story of a long period pent-up inside because of an epic old-time Yankee snow storm.
We read the poem in school, or at least I did. Am I dating myself here? I know Whittier’s poems are mostly neglected these days, but it seems that this one has made some inroads into modern American culture. The title is at least recognizable I would think, even if people do not recall much about the text of the poem, which was wildly successful in the mid 1800’s when it was first published. Heck I am even looking into submitting to the “Snowbound Chapbook Award” from Tupelo Press, although that fact has nothing else really to do with this post or the poem in question.
We cannot relate much to those days, even with the weekend storm we had here in the northeast, and a new snow storm on the way, it’s hard for us to imagine a winter event that would leave us huddled around the fire in our living room telling stories for a week. To preserve page space here click on this link to read the full poem at the Poetry Foundation’s site. It’s full title is “Snow-Bound; A Winter Idyl.” Here are just the opening lines as printed in The Critical Pages blog:
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite, shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
I wonder what the old Quaker would think of the song I have chosen to pair up with his poem tonight. It seems appropriate to me as I look down and my tablet tells me its a dastardly 13 degrees Fahrenheit outside with snow squalls imminent. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was one of my featured “Random Favorite Christmas Songs” last year, and while I mentioned some of the long list of artists who have performed it, this one (video below) from the boys of Glee is remains my favorite version.
But it seems I cannot share this song without addressing the criticism it’s undergone in recent years. It’s been unfairly, I think, dubbed as a date rape song, as if the guy is bullying the girl to stay, or spiking her drink in order to incapacitate her, but I think that what’s happening is that we are reading a modern context into the song for one thing, and missing the obvious though subtle reciprocation of flirting from the young lady on the other. Remember the Kenneth Koch line associated with reading “Snow-Bound?” Who’s being bad here, the boy or the girl? Or maybe, the pair wanting to stay by the fire and enjoy each other’s company isn’t bad at all, just not acceptable for young ladies of that era.
As a gay man, and something of a feminist I was encouraged to see others who see this song much the way I do, and so let me take a few minutes to look at some views that echo my own feelings on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
In a defense of the song in Open Salon back in 2010 Alex Guillen says, “What proves the plot is less skeevy than modern interpretation would hold? She spends much of the song worrying not about her actually stay over but rather her family’s reaction.” To me it seems obvious she is flirting, but much more subtly than he is. She has already stayed too long, and fears trouble from her mother, father, auntie, brother. What will they think, seems her concern, not “I don’t want to do this.” For heaven’s sake, she asks for a comb before she’s even agreed to stay, which implies that they have already been snogging it up, and her hair has become mussed as a result. Is this too subtle for modern listeners?
“Say what’s in this drink?” I respectfully understand the concern when this is heard by a modern ear, but again, I think we read too much 21st century into it. He mixed a strong one most likely, but in the context of her concern over what others might think, I always saw this as her looking for an alibi, wanting to stay but feeling the need to adhere to societal norms of the time. And don’t kids, even adults do this today? “Dude, I would never have done that if I hadn’t been drinking.” Please don’t misunderstand me and think that I am placing blame on her, it’s just that I have always seen this as a way for her to rebel and still appear to be a proper young lady. In her words, seemingly almost under her breath in some versions, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”
Some critics seem unable to acknowledge the possibility that a young lady might actually want to flirt and make out with a young man, and that the song, in its time was therefore actually exhibiting a woman exerting her independence despite what was expected of her.
Frank Loesser, the songwriter originally performed this with his own wife, and if you listen in this version provided by NPR to what I can only describe as eager playfulness in her voice when she says, “well maybe just a cigarette more,” you might agree that we are making the whole thing too simplistic and being even more sexist by seeing her as a helpless damsel in distress. I also found this defense from Persephone Magazine, a decidedly feminist publication. Well, actually I think the author makes the guy in the song sound a good deal less lecherous than he actually is. I mean he is trying to get lucky after all, but I think she’s not far off the mark in her perceptions about the young lady.
The song, which is a back and forth, closes with the two voices in harmony. This is important — they’ve come together. They’re happy. They’re in agreement. The music has a wonderfully dramatic upswell and ends on a high note both literally and figuratively. The song ends with the woman doing what she wants to do, not what she’s expected to do, and there’s something very encouraging about that message.
There is no threat of force, and even his coercion is exaggerated and silly. Keep in mind his ridiculous plea, “Think of my life long sorrow / if you caught pneumonia and died.” There is nothing ominous or threatening here until we insert our own preconceived notions that are not in the text. We are not to take this back and forth play so seriously. Another article, this time from a gay friendly, transgender blog called Transradical, had these insights:
both the woman’s wishy-washy reasoning for why she should be leaving and the man’s for why she should stay are both pretty weak. Their “argument” never really leaves the realm of playful flirtation and seems to exist only so that the woman can “at least… say that [she] tried.” Again, it’s her reputation she’s worried about, not her safety.
If you actually listen to the song instead of pulling lines out of context, it becomes pretty clear that our mouse never really intends on leaving, our wolf would have no intention of preventing her if she did, and both of them, as well as the audience, are perfectly aware of both facts.
All this discussion and I only wanted us to enjoy a song! Sigh. In the Related Articles below I’ll include a further link which, while I think it makes a few errant assumptions, in the end gives a mostly fair look at both sides of the issue. Well I must say I adore this version, and while perhaps it has been sung in more sinister ways over the years (not that I’ve heard those versions), this one makes it pretty clear that the flirtatious feelings are completely mutual. And in this context it is clearly a song about the pursuit of love, despite societies demands, a modern and flirtatious twist on being “Snow-Bound.”
- Welcome Back (Again) John Greenleaf Whittier (ironjean.com)
- Snowbound: Our Favorite Holiday Songs and Playlist (berkleecitymusicnetwork.com)
- “The Answer is No” : The Case for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside from Two Perspectives (xojane.com)