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Stevens' "The Snow Man" and "The Death of a Soldier," Plus "Death of a Soldier" vs Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Introduction and Text of "The Snow Man"

The first clue that Wallace Stevens' subject is not the jolly object children build out in the yard on a snowy day is in the title: it is "snow man," not "snowman." Consisting of five unrimed tercets, Stevens' "The Snow Man" is as tricky as Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

The speaker formulates a proposition through a Zen-koan-like façade, then concludes by heaping negatives on top of one another, an act akin to the piling on of snowballs that ultimately make up the structure of a snowman.

Otherwise, there is no "snowman" in the poem; there is only a mind that quietly practices stilling itself in order to realize certain truths about the nature of reality, or more accurately, in order to concoct some imaginary take on reality.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Reading of Stevens' "The Snow Man"

Commentary on "The Snow Man"

The speaker is describing the nature of the mind that can understand and empathize with the features in a natural setting that are enduring the extreme cold and frozen reality.

First Tercet: A Winterness of Mind

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

The speaker sets forth asserting, "One must have a mind of winter." This assertion demands much of the reader. It is an extraordinary claim, not one often encountered in daily parlance.

So how does one contend with this notion that there is "a mind of winter"? And according to the speaker, one must have it in order to simply observe/understand the cold as it appears in nature during winter time.

Perhaps this mind of winter is simply a clear mind, unobstructed with worries and cares, thoughts and desires. Or maybe it is simply a winter filled mind, one that has taken in all the winter imagery it can hold.

The idea of having this "mind of winter" is important and cannot be lightly dismissed, because the rest of the poem depends upon a clear sense of its significance, as in the second line that reports one reason that having that winter mind is important.

One has to have this winterness of mind in order to consider the reality of "the frost and boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow." If one does not have the right frame of mind, that is, that "mind of winter," one will not be able to grasp what the cold might be reporting.

Second Tercet: Extended Coldness

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

In addition to having this winter mind, however, one also requires the experience of "hav[ing] been cold a long time."

Without the winter mind and the physical experience of coldness, the observer will fail to approach the reality of "the juniper" and "the spruces" as they hang with ice. The speaker implies that a somewhat other-than-human experience is necessary to know what the trees and shrubs are experiencing.

Third Tercet: Biting and Bitter Cold

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 speaker places this winter scene in the "January sun," a contrast that offers no refuge from the biting and bitter cold.

Then the speaker reveals why the "mind of winter" and the experience of having been cold a long time are necessary: Without these two benefits, one "think[s] / Of [ ] misery in the sound of the wind." Even "the sound of a few leaves" adds to this "misery."

Fourth Tercet: How to Grasp Inordinate Cold

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

Bitter cold makes human beings miserable unless they can become mentally prepared to withstand it. The speaker then continues a long clause qualifying "the sound of the wind."

The sound of a "few leaves" and the sound of the wind bring the "sound of the land." That land is filled with the "same wind" that swoops into the mind of the observer capable of grasping the inordinate cold.

Fifth Tercet: The Snow Man Listens

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

The speaker then dramatizes the act of listening to this wind in the snow. This particular listener is "nothing himself." Yet he is capable of realizing the "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

The listener is the "snow man," not the "snowman" made of snow setting out in the yard, but the human man who has learned to still his mind and become one with all the attributes of frozen leaves, frost encrusted pine branches, and that lonely wind that blows in from barren places.

Futility and utility have battled to the death, and futility has won.

Portrait of Wallace Stevens

Portrait of Wallace Stevens

Introduction and Text of Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier"

Likely influenced by the collected letters, Lettres d'un Soldat, of the French painter Eugène Lemercier, who was killed in 1915, Stevens' poem is not, however, a tribute but a futile, desperate, nihilistic tweet that lacks the ring of truth and the appearance of a steady heart.

Wallace Steven's poem, "The Death of A Soldier," is displayed in four versagraphs. Each line of each versagraph becomes shorter than the preceding line, which causes the verse to appear uniform on the page.

The visual impact of the display attempts to add a nuance of meaning which descends into the typical modernistic imagination in its nihilistic garb of complaint and innuendo. For the modernist and postmodernist imagination, death is always to ultimate scapegoat for relativistic escapism.

The Death of a Soldier

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

Musical Rendition: Postmod Interp

Commentary on Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier"

This poem suggests the nihilistic notion that because war is hell, those who fight wars must necessarily he warriors of hell. Issues such a bravery, courage, and stamina have lost all creditability in the postmodern mind, steeped in a directionless fog of doubt and ultimate nothingness.

First Versagraph: A General Statement

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

The first versagraph finds the speaker offering a fairly general statement: "Life contracts and death is expected."

But the reader immediately is bombarded with a host of questions: how exactly does life contract? does life contract in the same manner that death is expected? does life contract because of death? or merely because death is expected? why is it expected and by whom? who is most focused on such a claim and where does life go after it contracts?

Stevens was a great worshiper of the imagination and thus all these questions suggest a great minefield of imagination. While the potential may be infinite, the reader's imagination within the confines of the poem is quite finite. Thus the speaker offers the notion that the expectation of death resembles the autumn season after a soldier dies.

This speaker will not broach the issue of a soldier's duty or bravery but instead focus on the nihilistic associations he can make about that death. Cowards, knaves, and low-information non-thinkers will all flock to the implications of such wizardry.

Second Versagraph: The Unknown Soldier

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

The speaker has chosen to make his imaginary culminations focusing on the unknown, uncelebrated soldier who dies without fanfare. He may be on the battlefield but such placement only heralds the inevitable which includes the suggestion that, of course, war is hell, but so is having traipsed off the war in the first place.

It is likely that no one may have known how or even that the soldier died until many decades after the fact. Such a soldier heralds no pomp and circumstance even though he is the majority. And it is also likely that his death imputes no "separation."

The speaker must know he is skating on thin ice here. Regardless of the battlefield of chaotic war, the family of the fallen soldier, even the military units and country for which he fought, will, in fact, honor him.

The tomb of the "Unknown Soldier" puts the lie to the implications of this desperate poem. Every war in recorded history has gathered such for the unknown fallen.

Well past "the three days" will this soldier and all the fallen be acknowledged by tributes. Thus this nihilistic dramatization of the unknown hero rings untrue from the outset. Can the speaker recover his integrity from such a misrepresentation?

Third Versagraph: No Poetry in a Blatantly False Claim

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

The speaker has made such a ridiculously false statement that he can only descend into obfuscation now. He has adversely pulled the readers' attention into an unresolvable conflict: soldiers are not celebrated? really? by cowards, knaves, and low-information non-thinkers, and you care about that?

Nevertheless, the speaker cannot give up his smooth discourse, so he offers the flabby notion, "Death is absolute and without memorial." Just because a statement offered with bluster and boldness may sound profound does not make it so.

Thus the speaker must offer some sort of support for his bald claim: a soldier's death is like in autumn when the wind stops. Of course, it is not; the speaker knows it, yet he persists in his lame assertions.

Fourth Versagraph: A Rhetorical Nowhere

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

How does a speaker continue such a discourse without embarrassment or shame? By not acknowledging the futility of his audacity and by continuing in his folly even as he stutters and clips some natural event.

When the tripping speaker cuts and pastes an event from nature such as "The clouds go, nevertheless, / In their direction," the reader can be sure that speaker has nowhere to go rhetorically that would offer any kind of logical compliment to his earlier inane observations.

The speaker both literally and figuratively throws his claim to the wind. But at least he finally inserted a truth: clouds do, in fact, "go in their direction."

Wallace Stevens' "Death of a Soldier" vs Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier" and Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon" express two very different attitudes toward their subject.

The Nihilism of Wallace Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier" dramatizes a nihilistic attitude.

Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage.
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

This attitude has ushered in a disturbing and often disgraceful display of antipathy toward the men and women of the military who serve their country with honor and distinction. In Wallace Stevens' poem, the speaker's nihilistic attitude fosters an acquiescence, showing no bitterness, no sorrow, no emotion of any kind.

He likens the fallen soldier's demise to the decay of life during the autumn season. By repetition, he emphasizes this focus: "As in season of autumn" and "When the wind stops."

The speaker observes that in the fall when the wind stops, the clouds continue to move, suggesting that life goes on after each human death, akin to Robert Frost's speaker in "Out, out," who says, "And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

Except for those two phrases, the poem is devoid of poetic devices. It remains quite literal in its execution.

The lack of human emotion in a poem about death reveals the influence of the modernist dilemma, where in many poets, culture critics, and other thinkers began to suspect that human beings had more in common with the animals than with children of God; thus, they began to question the value and purpose of religion.

Falling victim to a spiritual dryness led to confusion, melancholy, and egomaniacal pandering with propagandistic displays instead of heartfelt, truthful, artistic expressions.

Love and Honor of Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

The Whitman speaker contrasts mightily with the Stevens speaker. Whitman honored the military and showed his love, respect, and affection by serving in military hospitals and on the battlefield during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;
Pour softly down night's nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss'd wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.

Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon" rendered in song

In Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon," which is extremely brief vis-a-vis Whitman's penchant for long poems filled with expansive cataloguing, the speaker shows great emotion.

He is almost keening while begging the moon to bless these poor "ghastly, swollen, purple" faces, these poor creatures, who are on their backs, with "their arms toss'd wide." This image of the arms flung wide offers readers the possibility that the body appears to be resembling the shape of a cross.

This speaker is beseeching the moon, to which he assigns a kind of divinity by calling it sacred, to put a halo, "nimbus," around these poor dead soldiers. This speaker's plaintiff sorrow exposes the human heart, open to divine healing, not accepting the pessimistic, nay, nihilistic tendencies that it is apt to fall prey to in such agonizing scenes.

The Modernist Mindset vs Romantic Sensibility

While both poems focus on the death of soldiers, the Stevens twentieth-century, modernist speaker does so without passion, while the Whitman speaker, demonstrating the nineteenth-century reverence for the qualities and duties of military personnel, shows great sorrow.

Therefore, the themes are similar but the attitudes or tones are very different. In the Stevens poem, the modernist attitude is expressed in complete sentences, such as "Life contracts and death is expected" and "Death is absolute and without memorial"—very exact and matter-of-factly stated.

Whitman's speaker, on the other hand, expresses the Romantic sensibility of passionate sorrow in several words that reveal tone: bathe, softly, ghastly, sacred. This speaker is almost praying to the moon to pour down its soothing rays, to pour them down softly on the deceased.

The speaker refers to the faces of the dead as ghastly, a word that clearly reveals the speaker's pain at having seen such devastation.

And finally, the speaker refers to the moon's light as sacred, which goes well beyond personification into deification of the moon, giving it the ability to consecrate the dead. Such exaggeration defines the pure, raw emotion felt by the speaker.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: What type of poem is Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man?

Answer: Wallace Stevens' poem, "The Snow Man," is a lyric poem.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes