The home where Snow-Bound takes place is today preserved and open to the public as the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Again, I am returning to an older post from Christmas past today, with a few editing adjustments. I still love this song, and I want to go snuggle now with Brian while we read this poem.
Last time we featured monks, Handel, and John Greenleaf Whittier. 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.
First, the 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. Its 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.
Modern controversy over the song
I wonder what the old Quaker would think of the song I have to pair up with his poem tonight. It seems appropriate to me as I look down and my tablet tells me it’s 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 names from 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, disparaged as a date-rape song, as if the guy is bullying the girl to stay, or spiking her drink in order to incapacitate her. 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. 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 socially acceptable for young ladies of that era.
As a gay man, and a feminist, I was encouraged upon finding that there are still 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 interpretation of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” To summarize first in a phrase, I’ve always just taken this song as two people flirting, but set in a time when if the girl was going to be “bad,” for reputation’s sake, she had to at least keep up the appearance of being good.
The Case for the song
In a defense of the song in Open Salon back in 2010 Alex Guillen said, “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” (emphasis mine). To me, this has always been obvious, but have I just been blinded by the norms of rape culture? She has already stayed too long and fears trouble from her mother, father, auntie, and brother. What will they say? What will they think?
She asks for a comb before she’s even agreed to stay, which infers that they have already been making out and her hair has become mussed as a result. Is this too subtle for modern listeners? The camera used to pan away to moonlight or fireworks during physically romantic scenes, whereas now we show as much flesh on camera as we can get away with.
What’s in this drink?
“Say, what’s in this drink?” the young lady quips. I understand the concern when this is heard by a modern ear, but again, I think we read our own 21st-century experiences into it. He mixed a strong one, certainly, and that makes us think of date-rape drugs that I don’t think were available then. I have gone my whole life thinking this was just saying, “holy cow, how much booze did you put in this?” Of course, I understand that’s concerning enough on its own.
Yet, how many times have I heard young folks today say things like, “Dude, I would never have done that if I hadn’t been drinking.” I am ashamed to admit that I have a memory of going home with someone one night years ago and telling myself, “oh well, I can always say later that I was drunk.” But the truth is, and of course I knew it the very second I said that, that if I had the presence of mind to articulate that excuse, that I could not honestly use it.
Please don’t misunderstand me and think that I am placing blame on her. I actually have always seen this as a rather independent move on the part of the young lady within the constraints of her culture, a way for her to rebel and enjoy her own sexual liberation while still keeping up appearances of being a socially acceptable and proper young lady. In her words, seemingly almost under her breath in some versions, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”
For me, someone who was sexually abused by a “friend of the family” when I was a child, to call this mutual flirtation song and dance a “date-rape song” feels like an insult to actual victims of the real thing. I can see, though, how this becomes difficult in modern times, the song’s interpretation, I mean, because we all see through the lense of our own experience.
Frank Loesser, the songwriter, originally performed this with his own wife, and if you listen in their 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.
I realize we do not want to make light of issues over consent and I am so glad we live in a world that seems more capable of openness and honesty in matters of sex. But they didn’t live in a time of such honestly, and hence the fun that is so apparent to an older fella like me in the flirting banter between the two characters. There is no threat of force, and even his “coercion” is exaggeratedly unrealistic and silly. His ridiculous plea is, “Think of my life long sorrow / if you caught pneumonia and died.” We are not supposed to imagine she takes his words 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.
Finally, let’s listen to the song
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.”