“Little lines, in the ice, splitting, splitting sound…”

So yesterday, Washington got snowed on; tonight, freezing rain has encrusted the city in ice, which, while all sparkly and picturesque, is sufficiently treacherous to prevent a muddle-headed, flu-fighting medievalist from hitting the streets at 2 a.m. in search of his remedy of choice: an assortment of donuts from 7-Eleven.

And so, donut-deprived, frosting-forlorn, bereft of blueberry filling, I can only squint pensively at the snow from my window and be glad I’m not Charlemagne, who likewise tries to settle his brain with a bit of twilight snow-gazing in Longfellow’s “Eginhard and Emma”:

That night the Emperor, sleepless with the cares
And troubles that attend on state affairs,
Had risen before the dawn, and musing gazed
Into the silent night, as one amazed
To see the calm that reigned o’er all supreme,
When his own reign was but a troubled dream.
The moon lit up the gables capped with snow,
And the white roofs, and half the court below,
And he beheld a form, that seemed to cower
Beneath a burden, come from Emma’s tower…

You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out what Charlemagne spied with his imperial eye. (Hint: it wasn’t a donut.)

The story of Eginhard and Emma was popular during the 19th century: It was retold in corny books about Rhineland legends, Strindberg turned it into a short story, and Schubert made it part of his opera Fierrabras. How the actual fling between Charlemagne’s daughter Berta and his adviser Angilbert got transformed into a romance between Charlemagne’s biographer and a wholly fictional daughter is a mystery to me, but it’s a ready-made thesis for a dissertation, or at least the starting point for an ambitious novelist with a penchant for romantic fantasy.

To his credit, Longfellow kept his version both eloquent and concise, giving us lots of memorable couplets and a lovely description of Alcuin. It’s no donut—but really, what is?

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