To a Snowflake by Francis Thompson:

What heart could have thought you? --
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor? --
"God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind --
Thou could'st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost

Is the meaning of the bolded phrase "this is beyond our (or my) guessing"?
"You (mere people) are unable to guess how he hammered and wrought me"?

I looked up the meaning of "surmisal" in dictionaries but am not sure still.

From Wiktionary:

  1. Surmisal (noun): Thought, imagination, or conjecture, which may be based upon feeble or scanty evidence; suspicion; guess.
  2. Reflection; thought; posit.

Could it mean "the God was passing his surmisal while he hammered and wrought me"? I mean, like a decision is passed by a court?

  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's Lit Crit Oct 20, 2016 at 16:27
  • 1
    OED says of surmisal that it's a "now rare" variant of surmise. Which could refer to any of several "now obsolete" definitions for the latter, given we're looking at a poem written over 150 years ago. But my guess is that line is what we might still convey today as Just a passing thought... In context I'd say it means the snowflake was formed by God in a moment of whimsy, but maybe it's the poet having a passing thought about how snowflakes are created. Or maybe it's something else. It's poetry! Oct 20, 2016 at 16:32
  • 1
    I expect Thompson was familiar with the idea that "no two snowflakes are exactly alike". Even today, I'm not sure if that's a statistically valid "truth", but I'm guessing she was religious and may actually have thought God had a hand in making sure every snowflake was different. So it might be a sort of paean to her God, who's so powerful he can easily remember zillions of previous, current, and future snowflake shapes (and infallibly avoid duplication whenever he makes another one, even though he does this countless times a second, as "passing thoughts, fleeting fancies"). Oct 20, 2016 at 16:59
  • 1
    Just a passing surmisal - how about if whenever a question like this turns up, we settle on a standard response whereby the question is closed as LitCrit, leaving a link to a chat thread (which the system is obviously nagging us to do now! :) That way we'd have a dedicated page for "legitimate" discussion. But I don't suppose TPTB here on SO would really approve in the long run, if ELL became a sort of "portal" to a poetry-related discussion-based "sub-site". Still, it's an idea. Should we maybe raise it in meta? Oct 20, 2016 at 17:07
  • 4
    I see no reason to close a question as LitCrit if the question is about the literal meaning of a word or phrase.
    – TimR
    Oct 20, 2016 at 17:53

1 Answer 1


You understand this correctly: passing surmisal means 'beyond (the ability of our merely human minds to) conjecture'.

As you have probably learned from dictionaries, surmisal is a rare noun form of surmise, as (even rarer) devisal is of devise. Thompson's poetry seems to me to be driven mostly by auditory qualities, and his choice of these words was probably prompted more by the mostly amphibrachal meter and the happy rhyme with Paradisal than by his pre-Raphaelite fondness for preciosity.

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