Analysis of the Poem "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens

Updated on March 3, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens | Source

Wallace Stevens and The Snow Man

The Snow Man is a short, enigmatic poem that invites the reader into the mind of winter to face an eventual paradox. Not only is it a magical take on a bleak reality but a profound exploration into levels of consciousness. And there is not one mention of an actual snow man in the five stanzas.

Wallace Stevens also manages to incorporate a sense of desolate beauty into the winter landscape through an initial meditative tone, yet eventually distances the speaker (and the reader) from any ideas of emotional attachment or aesthetic appreciation.

  • In the end the speaker reaches a state of mental neutrality, his mind seemingly stripped bare. He's reached a different state in the snowy winter scene. It is typical of Wallace Stevens to explore this relationship between the natural world and the imagination, to invite the reader into a different philosophical dimension.

This isn't always an easy transition. In The Snow Man, one long drawn out sentence, the invitation takes a turn in the third stanza, following the descriptions of wintry evergreen trees.

The speaker gently advises the reader not to project human feeling onto nature but to simply let things be as they are, to experience the wind and bare cold as nothing, as what it is, with and without the imagination.

  • In effect the poem is also exploring the idea that sensation (of cold and bleakness) is related to emotion (misery), because the mind cannot help inventing words to articulate feeling.
  • In contrast, the building of a snow man, snowman, is traditionally thought of as an enjoyable activity, especially since once built, snowmen gain a personality.

That final stanza is a bit of a conundrum. For starters, just who is the listener? Is it the speaker quietly talking to himself? Is it an imagined person? Is the speaker imagining what it's like to be a thinking snow man?

The listener is nothing himself but is still able to listen, that is, still has his senses intact. Perhaps the speaker is suggesting that the listener, out there in that cold, bare landscape, is numbed and feels insignificant?

The imaginative man becomes the snow man, becomes the snow, becomes the landscape, the season? Bereft of all reason, physicality and language, he has, paradoxically, become witness to both a non-existent and existing nothing.

Wallace Stevens first had this poem published in the magazine Poetry 1921, and it appeared in his first book, Harmonium, a real groundbreaker, in 1923.

Poems by Wallace Stevens Similar In Theme To The Snow Man

These short poems help put The Snow Man into perspective and give insights into Wallace Stevens's ideas on the imagination and reality:

The Plain Sense of Things

No Possum, No Sop, No Taters

Crude Foyer

As You Leave The Room

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.

Analysis of The Snow Man Stanza by Stanza

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

The first line begins with that impersonal pronoun 'One', a substitute for 'I', which implies that this poem isn't about an individual experience but applies to anyone. The modal verb 'must' leaves no room for ambiguity - it is necessary to have this wintry mindset to regard the frost and the boughs on the pine-trees.

To regard is to view or look at attentively, so in this first stanza the focus is on the eye as the lens through which we see nature.

This is a relatively simple descriptive tercet once the idea of the mind of winter is taken on board.

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

The second stanza continues with the idea that not only must one have a mind of winter but additionally one must have been cold a long time. There's no stipulated measurement of time here, that's up to the reader. But there is a suggestion of being physically cold, of being bodily involved in that cold, windswept landscape.

And that verb behold puts a different spin on things. It occurs in the bible for instance, in Genesis 1:29 and is related to revelation or heightened insight into something impressive and awesome.

Note that the trees are all evergreen, they stay in leaf all through the year, and deny the seasonal change. So in effect, winter has no essential grip on them, unlike the speaker with his wintry mind.

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

The third stanza reveals the turning point in the poem, the speaker clearly advising the reader not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind, that is, not to project human emotion out into and onto nature.

The wind makes a sound as it hits the trees and leaves and land but there can be no true experience of it if that word misery is attached. It's as if the mind has to be emptied and that means letting go of emotional language which can distort reality.

This shift from the visual (regard, behold) to the aural (the sound of) and with it the rejection of feeling is important because it signifies a withdrawal - nature is taking over - the emotional being, the human, the listener, becoming a snow man, like a figure in a painted landscape.

As the reader progresses, the syntax (arrangement of punctuation and grammar and clauses) so far is relatively tame, liberal use of enjambment taking the eye smoothly from stanza to stanza, the odd comma or semi-colon producing a pause here and there.

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

The penultimate stanza again involves some repetition (sound, the same) which reinforces this idea of continual wind and bleakness. These three lines are a holding back and a confirmation, reminding the reader that, whilst stranded in this barren land they are also becoming an integral part of the snowscape.

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

These final three lines, in particular the last two, have caused more confusion among poetry analysts and lovers than almost any others.

  • The single sentence, the outpouring of a long cold breath is coming to an end, with syntax to match what is both a climax and anti-climax within a paradox.

Let's start with the listener, who is a male, that much is clear. But, is this the snow man? The speaker? An alter ego?

Whoever it is they have the ability to listen and that listening is pure, there is no emotional language to color those sounds. The speaker therefore could be:

i) a person who has spent so long out in the cold they have lost their ability to think and feel - hence the nothing himself -

ii) or the speaker is taking on the role of the snow man, becoming an imagined voice for this crystalline, unfeeling creature.

Literary Devices and Meter in The Snow Man

This poem contains the following literary devices:

Alliteration

When words beginning with the same consonant are close together in a line, producing textures sound effects:

must have a mind....blowing in the same bare place...Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is

Enjambment

When a line continues on to the next without punctuation, which allows the reader to 'flow' into the meaning, without a true pause. Enjambment works really well in this poem, slowing things down, allowing flow between lines and stanzas 2-3 and 3-4.

Internal Rhyme

Although there is no set rhyme scheme for end words there is near rhyme that resonates throughout the poem. Look for:

must/frost/crusted....boughs/sound/sound/sound...mind/pine/ice...winter/with/distant glitter/think/wind/Which/listens/himself ..snow/behold/cold/blowing/snow/beholds

Repetition

To give a sense of sameness and inter-relation there are words and phrases repeated:

of...of the...sound...same wind...same bare place...listener/listens...nothing himself/nothing that is not there/nothing that is.

Meter (Metre in British English)

The Snow Man has a mixed metrical make-up. The first stanza for example has three lines of tetrameters, four feet each:

One must / have a / mind of / winter

To re / gard the / frost and / the boughs

Of the / pine-trees / crusted / with snow;

Trochees dominate, which is unusual. With that first syllable stressed the familiar iambic beat is turned on its head, so the reader is immediately aware that this is not a traditional daDUM daDUM exercise in expressing a line of poetry. This is different, quirky.

The combination of pyrrhic feet at the start in lines 2 and 3 bring initial quiet - a trochee following in line 2 and a spondee in line three contrasting with their hard syllables.

The rest of the poem moves away from this tetrameter template as the syntax becomes increasingly controlled then freed up - reflected in the fourth stanza with its heavily enjambed lines, the shortest having a mere five syllables - and the fifth stanza, heavily punctuated, with anapaestic and trochaic feet and the longest line in the poem being the last, with twelve syllables.

Sources

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.jstor.org

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

Comments

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      8 months ago from UK

      Great analysis of a topical poem. Snowmen carry a fascination with them.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      8 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      The Snow Man holds such a wealth of interest. It has desolation, depth and paradox but seems so innocent when read through quietly. You could be right about being alone - as a snowman is when dusk creeps in, the moon hides behind cloud and all the children and animals leave.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      8 months ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      This poem brings back actual memories of walking in -30 degree winters through the field to the woods on the family Michigan farm. The experience, was however, a very physical one, not so philosophical as Stevens' poem suggests.

      There is no mention in the poem of the feeling of being stabbed in the lungs by breathing in the freezing cold air, even with a woolen scarf about the mouth.

      There is no mention of the tinkling of ice on the branches of deciduous trees as the breeze blows through them.

      In other words, I think the poem is more about Stevens' aloneness at a specific time of year than it is about winter.

      Oh, chickadees, jays, and cardinals make the winter quite lively as well. So, my experience and perception are a little different than the poet's. I like philosophy too, though.

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