A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

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.

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7 responses to “A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

  1. I find the charge of ‘mystic’ a little peculiar for Stevens. He seems too
    acutely sensible. Recall ‘Chocorua to its Neighbour’ I quote from memory, so forgive me if I incorrectly quote:

    To say more than human things with human voice,
    That cannot be; to say human things with more
    Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
    To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
    Of human things, that is acutest speech.

    I too concur that he is of a profoundly naturalistic stance and that the snow man advocates harmony, that the snow is a trope for harmoniousness, the harmonium plays to bend the whim to this delightful state, as Eliot has the snow function in the Waste Land, “covering the earth in forgetful snow” myself taking this to be the wonted forgetfulness of the wasted land; that precise inversion of the negative to suggest the positive. This could, I agree be considered as a world created anew, as you deftly posit.

    Your analysis is lucid and precise, I must say I do not disagree with your reading, for it is not sound judgement to disagree with a person’s personal readings of a text, as Bloom explains in his treatment of criticism: Agon. His revisionism, an advocacy for ‘strong misreading,’ is a magnificent addition to criticism and one I wholeheartedly agree, for if you give an erudite and sensitive reading of a text, then you provoke discussion, healthy for the cause of literature.

    What do you think about that my friend? Do you think that one must respect other’s readings, even though they may disagree?

    • The posts are for the general reader and so the term ‘mystic’ is meant to be taken lightly, or superficially, having a connotation closer to our century’s secular understanding of the word. The word ‘mystic’ has seen many meanings but today it is a catchall for spiritualism. Stevens is a paradox. Indeed, as you aptly quoted, he is the poet of ‘human speech’ but he is also the poet of self-extinction, or asceticism. In early mystic traditions ascetics emptied themselves to try and experience a communion with the Absolute or the ‘the nothing that is [there].’ In Stevens’s continuation of the Romantic tradition the ‘Absolute’ remains Nature. I don’t want to step into the trap of attempting to deem Stevens a ‘mystic’ in the more traditional sense because it’s not there; he grew up a Christian but came to believe that the ‘religion’ of our climate was no longer tenable and the ‘Supreme Fiction’ becomes poetry and each individual’s imagination. That why, in the end, I believe the poem is lauding subjective perspective. That being said, I agree with Bloom’s thoughts on misprision and it applies to the post, which deals with the act of reading: ‘The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed.’ All strong or even passionate readings of literature should be respected even if one disagrees. As Bloom writes, Samuel Johnson (his hero, essentially) rejected Milton’s Lycidas, which Bloom regards as ‘the best poem of moderate length in English.’ No doubt this affected his understanding of the poem. If readings are not shut down or ignored (likely due to stubbornness or egotism) then we will either be unaffected by them or they will enhance our notions about the work by strengthening our own ‘arguments’ or adding a nuance we’ve yet to see. One should always respect another’s subjectivity, however difficult it may be.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. You have a very lucid manner in your expositions, I appreciate that. I was a Literature student and still profess to be, it is a joy to speak with someone who understands Literature.
    What are your thoughts regarding Stevens’ as one who sees the mystical as the procedure of imagining and the products that become: art, music & poetry etc? I say this due to the mystical overtones in ‘Peter Quince at the Klavier’ with its “witching chords” and “Simpering Byzantines” who all move to the steady (I always imagine) Adagietto, that Peter Quince is playing, a character plucked from Shakespeare’s most magical play.
    I personally, from the choice of character, the “sad strain” and ” “blue
    shadowed silk”, feel the urgency of Stevens’ need to compose a new, enhanced-by-the-actual mysticism that Stevens seems to permit by the absolute, unrivaled loveliness of things, especially those that emerge from Nature, making Stevens Pantheistic, perhaps.
    Of course we cannot neglect his Gnosticism and his fostering of Emerson’s thinking and creation, in Bloom’s opining, of the American Religion.

    • Hey Daniel, sorry about my late reply, I’ve been pretty busy. I’ll venture an answer to your question but its a very difficult one in regard to Stevens.

      I think that if we replace mystical with metaphysical then Stevens himself puts the answer before us in his essay ‘Imagination as Value’. He writes that ‘The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibility of things’ but these things are temporal, they are art, music, etc. and not mystic happenings. He sees the value in the ‘mystical as imagining’ in our day to day life, in our spiritual pursuits and he even gets into politics; but this metaphysical imagination is separate from the artistic imagination: ‘its [imagination’s] value as metaphysics is not the same as its value in arts and letters’; and so because ‘romantic thought means metaphysics’ he is trying to separate his poetic imagination from the Romantics and so you’re idea about his ‘need to compose a new…unrivaled loveliness of things, especially those that emerge from Nature’ is quite right.

      There are mystical tones in Peter Quince, but Stevens wouldn’t state that they were created by mystical overtones because this would be a type of pentecostal poetics that he can only apply to the Bible as the ‘Biblical imagination is one thing and the poetic imagination, inevitably, something else.’ The moment of the witching chords is very strange and I think anything but mystical or metaphysical. Thinking of the bathing woman’s beauty ‘is music’ and so in a moment of irony the religious elders watching the woman bathe get erections. ‘The basses of their beings throb / In witching chords’: I read basses as a pun on bases, so not only are they base men, quite the opposite of virtuous or religious, but their bases throb with thin blood. The irony is that they interpret their throbbing erections as ‘pizzicati of Hosanna’ and are attempting to thrust (pun intended) a metaphysics onto their very carnal, or earthly, pleasures. The poem is somewhat disturbing. I don’t really know to go from here….

  3. Actually the ‘bathing’ is not ‘music,’

    Thinking of your blue shadowed silk,
    Is music. It is like the strain
    Waked in the elders by Susanna.

    Well I would take the ‘witching’ as bewitching, thus the mystical being the ingredient that alters the key of the music from that of metaphysical, the physicality of the scene the poet is invoking, to the sensation that is a bewitching, for if you recall, the story of the Elders and Susanna, in the bible (where Stevens takes his characters from) the Elders blame Susanna for her beauty is the inspiration of their lust, which would not have been aroused by any woman, but Susanna’s beauty was so intense it was able to turn those Elders, wise and grey of age, into base men, which quite rightly ‘basses’ being a pun on base, I do not recall the critic whose work I sifted that from years ago. Now I find the line blurred here, for to the Elders there may be a mysticism invoked if they are bewitched by beauty, I find it hard to entertain a witch being metaphysical, they are mythical, which can be closer acquainted with the mystical.

    As for the remainder of the poem it is the purification of Susanna, but what Susanna is, is not easy to make out. Is she the ‘imagination as value’? I would have it that she is, but also as Santayana, Stevens’ teacher would put it ‘beauty as aesthetic principle’.
    Stevens in the remainder of the poem is outlining some of this theory’s principles on the physicality of beauty, which is not mystical, that means the ‘witching’ is mystical from the Elders’ perspective, which Stevens wishes to rectify into a metaphysics, to illustrate that the power of the flesh can alter any allegiance with an omnipotent sensation that is felt by something bound to the laws of the flesh.
    The line ‘But in the flesh it is immortal.’ I cannot take seriously, I just don’t believe that Stevens is actually saying this, it is impossible, and rightly so for he then says ‘The body dies, the body’s beauty lives’ and likens it to the dying of evenings the dying of gardens, which harks back to

    I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;
    For it has come that thus I greet the spring.

    The son is heir to the father, as spring is heir to the winter, the whole cycle of things. I think perhaps Stevens may equate the imagination’s cycle with the cycles of life, birth-dying, spring-winter the whole brouhaha. This will bode nicely with Milton’s confession that he could not write in winter, for there was no life in anything.

    The nuts and bolts of a poem can make you ramble indefinitely so I will cease now or I will begin to sound like Protagoras and you, in the manner of Socrates, will chastise my lengthy diatribe.

  4. Very interesting subject, thanks for posting.

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