Friday, December 09, 2005
Three Naive Statements About “The Snow Man”
In honor of the snow, end of the semester office hours, and the endless winter of the mind, here are some very brief observations on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” These are naive responses, because, well, it’s a blog. And of course, the many extant close readings of this poem (several of which are excerpted at UIUC) threaten to leave one with nothing of one’s own to say. The trick is to write first (naively), then compare notes with the published critics.
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
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.
1. Verbs: For a poem that is essentially about standing still, there are quite a number of active verbs, suggesting a play between activity and passivity. Through his verbs, Stevens makes the visual and aural perception of nature (which might well be understood as passive) into a highly intentional act. The poem opens with the observer in the snow, taking in the sharp visuals of a snowy winter day. But there is a shift after the semi-colon in the third stanza (the poem’s grammatical and conceptual hinge), first towards the land, and then back to the speaker. The last stanza has two verbs, one associated with sound (“listens in the snow”), and the second with sight (“beholds”), even as it negates (twice) the object on view (“nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”).
2. Nature described: There are parallels running throughout the poem in the descriptions of nature, which are first positive if remote (“crusted with snow”; “shagged with ice”), and then associative and negative (“sound of the wind”; “sound of a few leaves”; “sound of the land”; “same wind”; “same place”). The “sound of…” and “same…” phrases in the third and fourth stanzas are all in some sense echoes or reverberations of events that are never directly described in the poem. They are like pronouns without an antecedent, and they are all versions of one another (the “sound of the land” must logically also be the sound of the wind, since nothing else in nature on a still winter day would make noise).
3. Human mood/being/nothingness: As is relatively common in some of Stevens’ more famous poems, there is a play in “The Snow Man” between a feeling human consciousness (who experiences winter as “misery”), and a purely abstract perceiving entity that is utterly free of any emotional distortion (i.e., that sees “nothing that is not there"). The perceiving self and nature in its bareness and remoteness reflect each other directly: both as stillness and “nothingness.”
There is a grammatical trick of the poem in its double-negatives, and a conceptual trick involving a doubling of the observer (especially in the second half of the poem). One must have a “mind of winter . . . not to think/ of any misery . . . in the sound” of the snow and the nothingness of winter. The poem has so many subordinate clauses that it’s a little unclear whether listener in the last stanza is the same as the observer who first appears in the first. But of course they are – they must be – one and the same “snow man.” (Incidentally, it makes little sense to me to read the “snow man” in the poem as literally a snow man made of three big balls of snow. The snow man is a sentient being cogitating on the snow. I read the title of the poem as a comment on the human imaginative tendency to anthropomorphism, our tendency to populate the nothingness of winter with crude sculptural images of ourselves.)
* * * *
Those are the naive statements. As mentioned above, UIUC has excerpts from about a dozen relevant critical takes on “The Snow Man,” many of which cover similar ground. Check them out; I was impressed by Anthony Whiting and Kenneth Lincoln. The opening of the Lincoln excerpt is especially sharp and compelling:
“The Snow Man” is one long sentence in five oddly rhymed tercets, crystallized as verse. Like Frost’s image of ice melting on a stove, the poem reveals itself as it slides along, warmed dangerously by human touch. The lesson is clear: leave a snow man alone, and it exists for itself, unchanged; touch the snow, and the artifice goes away, as it goes along. An object measures differently in motion than at rest, variously cold and hot: watch it disappear. Instead of the expected iambic opening ("I placed a jar“), the poem begins impersonally, with a tentative trochee, almost spondaic, “One must have a mind of winter.” Right away, reverse field, the poem catches us in metric crux ("the trochee’s heave,” Pound said). A leveling cold serves to brace entry and numb stresses into anapests, even spondaic trochees: “and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.”
And it just goes from there, all good.
It seems to me, though, that the “three big balls of snow” stand beside the meat man not as an anthropomorphic projection but as a bathetic sembable, in a deflationary move typical of Stevens (such as the invocation at the dead aunt’s lying in of an “Emperor of Ice Cream").
I always see this poem about nothing as standing in contrast to all those Wordsworthian lyrics insisting on the presence of some thing. I don’t have anything against those poems, but Stevens’ little masterpiece always strikes me as a breath of freshg, cold air no matter how often I read it.
Aside: I have been the poetry editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal for the last fifteen years & all I can say is that I would like to see more parodies of & responses to “The Snowman” than the hundreds of “Thirteen Was of Looking” at this or that odd thing that I have looked at over the years.
Among the many things this poem doesn’t remind me of is the first twenty seconds of “Texas Never Whispers.”
This actually could count as an orthodox Buddhist poem, I think.
John E., in that case would the implied goal be to obtain a mind of winter?
Like Lawrence, I’ve always pictured the literal “three balls of snow” (although never in that phrase, which has brought a song about Nazi genitalia so insistently to mind that I’m having a hard time forcing my attention back to Stevens) and always took it as a typical joke undercutting Stevens’s slight snobbishness of sensibility.
Speaking of which, Joseph, if only John M. Ford commented here, he could probably contribute something about a cheerful young cross-country skier eager to get out and enjoy a vigorous run....
I’ve been away—but yes, Ray. The poem represents a very strong version of detachment. Buddhism in the US is marketed in sexy, warm-fuzzy forms, but these are not authoritative. Buddhism can be very cold.
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”
sounds like the perception of the emptiness of what is, and of the truth of emptiness (sunyata). “The nothing” is tricky, like the Derridan “trace”, because it seems like an additional “thing”, but is meant to indicate the nothingness of all things. Within Buddhism itself the substantification of emptiness was a constant hazard.
There was enough secondary literature on Buddhism available at the time for Stevens to have been aware of these concepts.
For anyone interested, I’d recommend Nishitani’s “Religion and Nothingness”, Mistry’s “Nietzsche and Buddhism”, and the introduction to Streng’s “Emptiness”.
The central conceit is very close in form to Frost’s “One had to be versed in country things, not to believe the phoebes wept.” I wonder what the respective dates are.