Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man"

Updated on February 2, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Wallace Stevens

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Snow Man"

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.

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 "The Snow Man"

Commentary

The first clue that Stevens' subject is not the fat, round object that children build out in the yard on a snowy day is in the title: it is "snow man," not "snowman."

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 contend with this notion that there is "a mind of winter"? And 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."

Of course, this 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.


Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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