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The Snow Man -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem sent in by Cristina Gazzieri
(Poem #1432) The Snow Man
 One must have a mind of winter
 To regard the frost and the boughs
 Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 And have been cold a long time
 To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
 The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 Of the January sun; and not to think
 Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
 In the sound of a few leaves,

 Which is the sound of the land
 Full of the same wind
 That is blowing in the same bare place

 For the listener, who listens in the snow,
 And, nothing himself, beholds
 Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
-- Wallace Stevens
Among Stevens's poems this has always been my favourite, even if, whenever I
tackle the commentary of it, I find it difficult to focus exactly on the
theme and especially, the message of the poem. I think, the difficulties of
interpretation come from the contradictory elements. For example, the first
part has its evocative appeal; the images of the trees "crusted" with snow,
the junipers "shagged" with ice, the spruces "rough" in the "glitter" of the
sun is not simply the description of nature of an observer who, "beholds
nothing that is not there". It is not an objective picture of a snowy
landscape; it is artistic, poetic appreciation of the outside world, and,
therefore, in a sense, just the denial of seeing "nothing that is not

I think, one of the themes of the poem is just the approach towards reality,
the conflict between the rational consciousness of the existential "void",
between the will to see things as they are, and the innate human tendency to
create worlds (even poetic ones), to reinterpret what we see in artistic (or
philosophical, or moral) terms. After reading the poem one wonders who the
"snow man" is. I think it is a negative term of comparison; it is what man
cannot be, what a poet can surely never become. Much more is suggested, if
not discussed: the misery of human condition; the natural, emotional bond
between man and nature, the "emptiness within" of the twentieth century man.
In the end there is the enigma of the interpretation of the first line. "One
must have a mind of winter" to look at the spectacle of winter nature and
not to think of human condition.

What is the meaning? Is it an invitation in philosophical and artistic terms
to look at reality without superimposing interpretations on it?  Or is it a
deduction that only "snow men" can do so? That real men create the
landscape, the "reality" they see, artistically, conceptually, morally?


[Martin adds]

The last line reminds me of the following passage from Chesterton's Father
Brown story "The Wrong Shape":

  "When that Indian spoke to us," went on Brown in a conversational
  undertone, "I had a sort of vision, a vision of him and all his universe.
  Yet he only said the same thing three times. When first he said 'I want
  nothing,' it meant only that he was impenetrable, that Asia does not give
  itself away. Then he said again, 'I want nothing,' and I knew that he
  meant that he was sufficient to himself, like a cosmos, that he needed no
  God, neither admitted any sins. And when he said the third time, 'I want
  nothing,' he said it with blazing eyes. And I knew that he meant literally
  what he said; that nothing was his desire and his home; that he was weary
  for nothing as for wine; that annihilation, the mere destruction of
  everything or anything--"

A very different take on the same basic idea.


24 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Penney Mark said...

The amazing thing about this poem is that its meaning lies in the fact
that it simultaneously means several things-several diametrically
opposed things, in fact.

"One must have a mind of winter / to regard the frost and the boughs . .
. and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind." You can
read this either as (1) You'd have to have no imagination at all (have a
mind of winter) not to hear misery in the wind; or as (2) In order not
to hear the misery, you'll need to make your mind into winter. And then
you've got the title of the poem, "the snow man," offering a third read:
Only snowmen, who have a mind literally made of winter, think this way.
Likewise, "been cold a long time . . . " can mean (1) that you've been
accustomed to the winter; (2) that you're a snowman; or (3) that you're
dead (as in "the body was already cold").

So are we being asked to block out our natural associations with cold
winter wind and see the winter for what it is? Or are we instead being
told that anyone who fails to see misery in the wind is somehow not
fully human, devoid of imagination, or even dead? The answer to both
is, "yes." Because you can read the poem either way, I posit that both
meanings are intended.

Note that the last line asks us to see "nothing that is not there and
the nothing that is." The nothing that is-the word "the" is key. It
implies "nothing" as a positive object, not a lack of objects. The
nothing that's there, I'd say, is arguably the nothing, the void, the
emptiness, the coldness, what-have-you, that we "think into" the cold
wind. So we see both "nothing that is not there" and yet" the nothing
that is."

In short, what I'm saying is that the poem doesn't take sides in the
debate about whether or not to read misery into the winter. Rather it's
pointing out the debate and reveling in it. Winter can be both beauty
and emptiness, both natural wonder and human misery. And can also be
nothing at all-just a bunch of solid water, dormant plants, and moving
air. But whichever it is, it's our imagination, more fundamentally our
human-ness or our non-dead-ness, that makes it so.


Generic Viagra said...

Harmonium was Steven first book and since that publication, I fell in love with him. I think most of his poetry has been defined -a little bit- by his close relationship with George Santayana. This specific poem is just one little example of his imaginary.

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David, Son of Walt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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Andrew Bridges said...

It's not like a Schiller poem. Nice.

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