A critical reading of a classic poem
‘The Snow Man’ by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was first published in 1921 in the magazine Poetry, and was reprinted in Stevens’s first collection Harmonium in 1923. It is one of Stevens’s most popular short poems. But what does it mean? In this post, we attempt to get to grips with ‘The Snow Man’, who he is, and how he should be analysed.
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.
A brief summary or paraphrase of ‘The Snow Man’ first. Stevens states that the observer of nature during the winter needs to have a cold and detached approach when beholding the frost and the snow on the trees and bushes. The observer must resist the temptation to associate the mournful sound of the winter wind with misery: he must resist the urge to project human feelings onto the wintry landscape. If he successfully resists this, he will be able to see the bare nothingness of the landscape for what it is, rather than attributing incorrect attitudes and emotions to the world of nature.
We must all, in short, be snowmen. But the poem’s title, ‘The Snow Man’, is ambiguous. It is not ‘The Snowman’, as in the Raymond Briggs story; so is this a real man who is among snow or a man made of snow? In fact, it is not quite either. The description of this Snow Man as ‘nothing himself’ suggests a literal snowman, but this is surely metaphor.
Stevens is saying that the listener and observer of nature must be a ‘man of snow’ (compare ‘man of steel’, for instance), i.e. he must possess the qualities of snow: cold, detached, objective, but also ego-free (the ‘egotistical sublime’ was a description of Wordsworth’s poetry made by another Romantic poet, Keats, which shows how bad things had got).
This gets us into a bit of a paradox: Stevens appears to be telling us not to project human qualities (such as misery) onto the non-human world of the wind and the snow, yet he is telling us to be more like the snow. In other words, we might summarise: we must be more like the winter (cool, objective), rather than seeking to make the winter more like us (miserable, sad, filled with a sense of loss).
The first line, ‘One must have a mind of winter’, conjures up the famous Oscar Wilde quip (‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’), and so might be considered a continuation of Wilde’s rejection of sentimental romanticising of human experience and sympathy (Wilde is referring to the gushingly tearful response British and American readers had to the death of the female protagonist in Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop).
The final line is especially clever in contrasting two different senses of ‘nothing’: this detached ideal observer will behold nothing that is not there (i.e. he won’t project false meaning onto the landscape), and will instead be in a position to behold ‘the nothing’ that is there, i.e. the emptiness, the world of nature devoid of human projections such as misery or sadness.
Yet how objective should, or can, we be? Wallace Stevens advocated something called perspectivism, which is about everything being subjective – there can be no objective experience of the world. Ironically, then, we must consciously adjust our perspective and stop seeing the winter as a time of misery (for Stevens, a false perspective) and instead see it more neutrally (but this is still a perspective, or way of viewing the winter world).
Although ‘The Snow Man’ is an unrhymed poem, its line endings provide a good example of what T. S. Eliot meant when he argued that free verse is never entirely free. Look at how ‘winter’ returns faintly in ‘glitter’ and then in ‘wind’ (twice); how ‘land’ falls between ‘wind’ and ‘wind’; and how ‘ice’, via ‘place’, is thawed and thinned into the poem’s final simple word ‘is’.
These rhymes-that-are-not-rhymes (nor even always half-rhymes) are like delicate prints in the snow, or the soft pale snow upon the juniper. They are not allowed to harden into the solid ice of full rhymes. Stevens wants us to regard nature with cool detachment, but not to become hardened or unreceptive to its beauty.
Wallace Stevens was much influenced by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) in the early stages of his career, but Stevens found his distinctive voice and approach once he moved away from under Keats’s shadow. ‘The Snow Man’ is about a rejection of the Romantic impulse to project your own feelings onto the natural world around you, and so ties in with Stevens’s rejection of the Keatsian aesthetic.
It’s difficult not to fall for the pathetic fallacy, we might say, but that is what we should strive to do: to stop viewing winter as a time of loss, and stop hearing notes of misery in the sound of the wind. These things do not have human agency and therefore we merely make these associations ourselves, projecting our own human feelings onto the rest of nature.
‘The Snow Man’ is a fine example of the crystalline style of Wallace Stevens’s poetry and his ability to convey something sharp and clear – and yet complex and in need of close analysis – in a few lines.
Image: Snowman, by Thomas Cook, 2009; via Wikimedia Commons.