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 intimidatingly good 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.

[Cross-posted at The Valve]


Jonathan said...

Why does snow make us think of 'nothing'? Is it because it buries things and makes them disappear? Or is it the cold and the association with misery and possibly death?

What I like in this poem is the way that the landscape is internalised. We get the idea that the wind is blowing inside the watcher as well so that we can understand more easily why this person who is 'nothing' can behold the 'nothing that is not there and the nothing that is'.

Amardeep said...

Jonathan, That is a good question about the snow. Stevens' response isn't the only way to 'be' the snow.

Snow can also make one think of light and openness, and of a generally simplified natural order (everything white; reduced natural textures). It is also uniquely good at leaving traces of human (and animal) passage: footprints everywhere you look.

And where I am the snow from yesterday is already melting, producing sounds of water dripping and running in gutters (at least in and around our apartment building). In the mid-atlantic states the snow rarely lasts. Here the snow doesn't stand in for the barrenness of winter at all; it's more of a brief, delectable, exception to a more moderate winter: mostly cold (though not always), mostly dry, and boringly brown.

Kaushik said...

The observer of the poem seems to see more when he has a mind of winter. Looking at it metaphorically (alluding to the fact that the poet was talking about the human mind in all its likelihood) it looks like a man with a heart/mind that is cold can see more of winter. Now this then leads to how the poet percieved winter...does he look at winter with relation to misery of the human spirit? I'm a little grey at this point. Because the imagery is fairly beautiful and doesnt seem to invoke sorrow. January sun, distant glitter, pine trees with snow.
I'm sure the last few lines are under intense debate. I like the fact that he says 'listens' and then uses 'beholds'. Does he mean that sorrow/misery is meaningless? - 'nothing that is not there and nothing that is' - giving a net zero.
Well so much for the outcome of my naivite...thanks for the made beautiful reading

Kaushik said...

excuse some stray words which i would have liked to delete but cant any more :)

ana beynaam said...

that's a lovely poem by wallace stevens, and i'm still pondering over the double negative, and the nothing that is. but i also find what you have to say about snow making one think of light and openness interesting. as i was reading your comments on the poem, i was thinking of lawrence's "women in love" and penultimate, or perhaps earlier chapter "snow" where gerald crich ascends (or is it ascends and descends, can't recall) to his death. one interpretation of that chapter is associating snow with nothingness and death, and gerald's knowledge of what lies ahead. what are your thoughts on that?

Manish said...

Why does snow make us think of 'nothing'?

Not just visual, it's also because of its silence and muffling effect.

brimful said...

Thanks Amardeep- I needed a reminder of why I occasionally miss the east coast, and absolutely adore a good poem.

Anonymous said...

As for the double negative, I feel like it is meant to award nothingness to both sides of Stevens' argument. The listener who sits quietly in the snow and feels no sorrow for the barren space before him receives nothing. The same can be said for the listener who feels sorrow in the wind and leaves blowing about. The key to it-again, I think-is in the "the" at the end. It is "the nothing that is" that is issued to those whose mind refuses winter emptiness. For those who are unable to feel the emptiness, it can be read, "For the listener...the nothing that is."

Corryn said...

Just a slightly different take on the final stanza- I think that Stevens is speaking about three types of humans. I think that there are certain people who see "nothing that is not there" are people who can only see what's right in front of them. They are removed and aloof, possessing a "mind of winter" like the snowman. I think a second type of person is the one without human added "misery," and these are the creative and imaginative people. Stevens often uses his poems to analyze consciousness and perceptions- I think this second type of person is one who can appriciate the beauty of the day because they can IMAGINE being without misery and cold. And the third type is those who "behold/...the nothing that is." Believing in something that is not there is called faith, and so Stevens says that the third type of person is one who believes in something that they can not tangibly see. That's my take on the litotes double-negative of the final stanza. =)