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Wallace Stevens and The Snow Man

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
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.
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
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:
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
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:
glitter/think/wind/Which/listens/himself ..snow/behold/cold/blowing/snow/beholds
To give a sense of sameness and inter-relation there are words and phrases
of...of the...sound...same wind...same bare
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,
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
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.
The Snow Man is a short five stanza poem. Each stanza is a tercet, meaning that it
contains only three lines. The lines are unrhymed, creating a free verse form. This
poem works as a single sentence, from the first word to the last it reads as a single
idea. The Snow Man was first published in Poetry magazine in 1921.
Summary of The Snow Man
This poem is a description of what it takes to correctly and objectively observe a cold
winter landscape, as well as the world at large, for what it is. Stevens’ narrator
describes throughout the poem the characteristics of the Snow Man that is named in
the title. This person must not project their own, or the world’s problems onto an
empty landscape. They must see it for what it is, empty. Important in its own right
without an attempted personification of human emotion.
The Snow Man Analysis
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
Stevens begins this poem by explaining a variety of characteristics that one must
possess to correctly appreciate and understand the cold winter. These are the
characteristics of the Snow Man whom is named in the title of the poem. “One must,”
Stevens writes, “have a mind of winter” to be able to regard the frost and the boughs
(or the firm branches of a tree) of the pine tree. The first question raised by this
poem is what does it mean to have a mind of winter? It should be taken to mean that
one’s mind must be immune to the dramas, emotions, and chaos of the world. One
must not be effected by the winter, but become part of it, to understand it. One must
be able to set all these things aside, and more, to fully understand the world as it
truly is.
Stevens continues into the next stanza with another characteristic of what it is to be
a snow man.
One must “have been cold a long time…” or simply, have had a “mind of winter” for a
long period of time before correctly beholding “the junipers shagged with ice,” or
seeing the spruces (the second type of tree named in this poem) “rough in the
distant glitter.” Stevens’ use of the word “rough” has alternative meanings in the line.
It means rough as in a sketchy, ill-defined silhouette in the distance, or rough as in
the frost and “junipers shagged with ice” have changed its outline from that of a
normal spruce tree to something much different and perhaps harder to recognize.
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Stevens continues this image in the next line, placing the “rough” spruces “in the
distant glitter” in the “January sun.” This addition of a time and environment to the
poem adds a layer of intensity to the cold. These features of the landscape, pines,
spruces, juniper berries, are frozen and are so stark that they remain so in the sun.
the sun, along with human emotion, it unable to transform It is at this point that the
poem turns and Stevens begins to finish his initial thought regard snow man
characteristics. One must be, all things just listed to appreciate this cold, sunny,
January day, and not think of “any misery” in the sounds made by the wind or that of
a few leaves. These sounds might bring out in someone who does not have a “mind
of winter” thoughts of misery, perhaps those in their own life, or of those general to
the world. Or even more generally, associate the actual sound with that of human
The next stanza continues with description of what this “sound” of wind and leaves
signifies– that of projected human emotions. It becomes clear that this
personification is problematic for the narrator, it is something to be avoided. The
narrator believes that the projection of human emotions will disrupt one’s
understanding of the world. A snow man must not project human misery onto the
sounds of the world, but must observe it for what it is, that of “the sound of the land.”
It is not human cries, or the pains of the world, it is, as the last line decries, “Nothing
that is not there and the nothing that is.” The point that is spelled out throughout this
poem is that one must have a detached mind, free from the influences of society,
emotional and mental trauma, to observe the world and see the nothingness in the
landscape around them for what it is, nothing.
This poem raises a number of interesting questions about the way in which the world
is understood. How much of one’s experience is truly real? And how much is created
by their mind and regarded as reality? These are the idea that Stevens is confronting
in this short piece.
About Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1879. As a poet he is known
for having a very wide and diverse vocabulary. Throughout his life he worked in
distinctively different jobs, and studied philosophy, and aesthetics. While in school as
a young child Stevens studied Greek and Latin. He graduated from Harvard with the
intention of becoming a writer having worked on different editor boards and with
various magazines while there.
After school he spent time working for the New York Evening Post until, after
deciding he wanted his life to go in a different direction that he wanted to pursue a
law degree, while in school he continued to write published his first group of poems
in 1914. While writing he had steady employment with insurance law. After
graduating from New York Law School, he worked as a lawyer until 1916.
It was not until after his death that Steven’s work was recognized for its importance.
He died in Hartford, Connecticut in 1955 at the age of 79 after receiving the Pulitzer
Prize for his Collected Poems. He now stands as one of America’s most respected
His most well-known poems include, “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Snow Man,” and
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
"The Snow Man" describes a winter scene to which the reader is privy in its fullness
only if they have a winter mind. The reader may get a winter mind if they read on, for
the reader does, in succeeding lines, discover winter's harsh beauty. If our bodies
match our minds, if we have "been cold a long time" and become accustomed to it,
we can "behold" the "crusted," "rough," "shagged" beauties, the ice bright in the
"distant glitter"—a seasonal decoration for the evergreen trees. Such a winter
person, frozen in place like a snowman, can bear the cold by not "[thinking] / Of any
misery in the sound of the wind"—by not associating any meaning with it. The sound
of the wind is something primordial, original, as in the "sound of the land," and it is
blowing so hard that the listener hears nothing else. He has wind in mind, pure wind,
no judgments, no preconceived notions. Numb or fresh from cold, the "listener"
"beholds" nothing. Winter in this sense seems without promise except for the
immediate and essential beauty of the scene available to a mind cleansed of its past
and frozen in its present.
This is a poem about the cold light of day, a poem in which a listener in the snow, a
man with a "mind of winter," would seem to be frozen in place. Even with the
listener's special capabilities to behold the scene, there is nothing there besides the
snow-covered trees, the ice, the wind, and a "distant glitter," like a fading star. Snow
is "crusted" on pines; junipers "shagged" with ice; spruces "rough" in the winter light.
The harsh season is marked by sharp diction with the sounds of the words mimicking
the jagged surfaces. The language of beauty and the textures of winter, even as they
are compelling, are not inviting. They hold the reader off. This is beauty meant to be
seen from a distance.
To use Wallace Stevens's terminology, the pressure of an essential winter reality
dominates. In his talk at Harvard in 1936, Stevens noted that there are historical
moments in which reality dominates, in which reality overwhelms, and the crucial,
balancing pressure of the imagination has no purchase. "The Snow Man" seems to
illustrate such a principle. In the Harvard talk, the pressure of reality to which the
poet referred was the effect of war. In "The Snow Man" it is winter, the season of
nothing, that is the commanding reality—a scene in which it is too cold to think.
There is only the commanding reality of the ice and snow and cold. The imagination
barely stirs. This poem demonstrates Stevens's belief in the role of the poet. An
excess of cold reality dominates the poem's narrative while the poet fulfills his
function, recreating the pressure of the imagination against the pressure of reality.
In "The Snow Man," which consists of five three-line stanzas, repetitions of triplets in
the stanzas reinforce the trios of objects and ideas in the poem: the pine trees,
junipers, and spruce; the sound of the wind, the sound of a few leaves, the sound of
the land; the nothing that is the listener, the nothing that is not there, and the nothing
that is.
"Nothing" is a word without a material referent; nothing exists only as an idea in
mind, an idea of absence, of something missing. The absence belongs to the poem's
speaker. The question of what's missing for the speaker begins to emerge in that
trinity of evergreen trees decorated by nature for the season. Could it be that a
winter mind is not a Christmas mind, and that the evergreens are not Christmas
trees? The ubiquitous series of three throughout represent elements in language and
in nature that indicate what has been left once the Holy Trinity has been lost. The
winter season has lost its holy significance for the speaker. In "The Snow Man" the
winter body is keyed to the natural world, to an appreciation for the beauty of the
trees in the snow, a tolerance of the cold, and the entertainment of a winter wind
whose sounds hold no message.
In this frozen scene the past and its liturgical comforts and seasonal customs—
prayers and Christmas trees—are replaced by what is left to sustain humankind:
poems and nature's beauty. What's left once the mythology of the Christ fails is an
essential beauty still built in triplets: three kinds of evergreen trees, three effects of
ice yielding winter's beauty, a poem of five three-line stanzas, and a conclusion in
which three nothings beheld (a Biblical verb) by the listener define the cold bare
place. It's as though, for the speaker, the old mental habits of Christianity persist,
albeit secularized.
If there is a hint of Christmas decorations on the evergreens in the distant glitter, it is
the reflected light of a fading star, a mirage caused by the January sun on the ice.
The land is bare because the old mythologies are dead. In fact, Stevens's nostalgia
for the religious life is everywhere in his poetry, stuck, some might say, in the poet's
imagination. The Trinity and its representations and repetitions in this poem, like the
meditation on the "death of Satan" and the mood of the woman who considers her
loss in "Sunday Morning," would seem to offer both acceptance and regret for his
dismissal of faith. After Stevens's death, stories surfaced of a last-minute conversion
on his deathbed. Many critics have repeated this story; some find it suspect. It is not
at all surprising to find that Stevens, like many who grow up in observant
households, would have found it easier to give up regular worship than to totally
relinquish thoughts of a spiritual life and belief in the existence of God.
"The Snow Man" is also—as many of Stevens's poems are—a poem about poetry.
The poem taken as a whole guarantees that the pressure of the imagination persists;
the proof is the existence of the poem itself. Here then is a poem about the death of
God but also a poem about the ways in which the pressure of the imagination is the
secular response to the loss of the Christian promise of the life everlasting. "Death is
the mother of beauty," the reader is told in "Sunday Morning." In "The Snow Man"
the wintertime death of the year bears a resemblance to death itself, but in fact bears
promise of new life and of new stories. The snow does not destroy; it merely covers
what is there and eventually melts to nurture the new season. Recovery and
reassurance in the notion of seasonal cycles is a common theme in Stevens's
poetry, and it is the poet as secular prophet who is the teller of perennially
renewable, life-sustaining stories.
Poetry of Wallace Stevens | Themes
The Pressure of the Imagination Versus the Pressure of Reality
The pressures of the imagination and the pressures of reality constitute the
organizing dynamic of the poems. The pressure of the imagination is the strategy of
the human mind to process the chaos of perception, the overload of stimuli in the
world around us, into some sort of coherence or order. The poet refers to this
strategy as the "rage for order." In the sense that this impulse of mind is irresistible
and involuntary, the individual never deals with brute reality but instead always with a
version that the individual imagination produces. This, the poet tells the reader, is a
survival tactic. The poem then, as an act of the mind, achieves its true importance as
a matter of survival.
The poem attempts to create a balance between the pressures of the imagination
and the pressures of reality. As Stevensdescribes it, the poem is an act of the mind,
which does not necessarily reach that ideal equilibrium. For example, "The Snow
Man" attempts to balance the death of God, imaged in the poem as a cold and
pleasure-annihilating emptiness, against the glittering beauty of an icy winter's day.
The existential emptiness with which the poem concludes reinforces Stevens's
notion that the loss of Christian practice is a tragedy for the imagination. Brute reality
would seem to dominate in this instance. "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," on the
other hand, balances the haunting white nightgowns of customs past with the
dreams of triumph in "red weather," even if the dreamer is a drunken sailor. And
although "The Man with the Blue Guitar" demonstrates the domination of the
pressures of reality, it offers some hope in the persistence of the imagination, never
completely defeated in this amazing study of evil and the imagination.
Failures of the Imagination: War and Religion
Several poems in the set studied here posit historical moments or eras in which
reality overwhelms, leaving no room for the balancing pressure of the imagination.
The failure of the imagination is both discussed and demonstrated in poems about
war and about the abandonment of Christianity in the 20th century. "The Man with
the Blue Guitar" is the fullest statement of this existential postwar shock for which
there is little repair except for the passage of time. Stevens's ability to create the
starkly realistic and communal trauma in a poem built from imaged abstractions is a
triumph of metaphor. The recklessly cheerful music of the piece, the strange nature
of the images, and the nursery-level rhymes belie the seriousness of the subject and
the convictions of the poet at the same time that these elements recreate the horror
that inspired them.
Similarly incongruous, the poet's play with the number three in "The Snow Man,"
where there is nearly three of everything (suggesting the Holy Trinity), contrasts with
the stated "nothing that is not there" with respect to religion. Absence—or the failure
of what once was—is represented by a fullness of expression. "Disillusionment of
Ten O' Clock" is another poem that muses on absence and emptiness while full of
amusing visual treats. "Sunday Morning" is a sort of morning-after hymn of absence,
a poem bursting with the full luxuries of secular life and the elaborate guilt of the
lapsed believer.
Cyclical Nature of Life
Most interesting of Stevens's textual objects are round things and things that go
round—such as the jar that organizes reality in Tennessee in "Anecdote of the Jar"
and the colored rings on the imaginary nightgowns in "Disillusionment of Ten
O'Clock." Some poems are circular in argument as, notably, the moment before the
poem's beginning positioned at the very end in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a
Blackbird." Since the beginning is in the end, the reader is positioned to be reborn, to
begin again.
Often disasters are redeemed in the return of the natural cycles—a very powerful
movement in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," for example. And perhaps surprising
for a poet of such unique and extended vocabulary, Stevens's use of seasonal
cycles is often obvious and predictable. Spring is renewal, summer is a fullness so
rich that the imagination threatens to fail in the heat, fall is the prophesy of the death
of the year, and winter is that bare cold place, an overwhelming reality that beggars
the imagination. Stevens deploys these references to the cycles of the natural world,
which provide rich imagery that presents both fulfillment and disappointment,
happiness and tragedy. Stevens's reality is governed by a natural world whose
cycles come to represent human possibility based in the cycles of birth death and
rebirth in the annual calendar and cut by the linearity of human mortality.
Poetry of Wallace Stevens | Narrative Voice and Perspective
Technically, most of the poems in this collection have a third-person omniscient
speaker. That is, there is a speaker or voice of the poem, an unidentified observer
with a critical eye who describes, judges, and seems to know a lot about all they
observe, including what others may be thinking or dreaming. Wallace
Stevens engages the reader much in the way an actor engages the audience. For
Stevens, the poem is not a product to be admired (or not admired) and abandoned
once the page is turned. A poem is a transaction, not a thing but a process in which
reader and poet are united. It is in the potential for this union—the collaboration of
reader and poem—that the poems in this collection operate as though they were in
first person even when the "I" is not spoken.
Just as the actor on stage is not himself but assumes a role defined by the skill of his
acting, so is the speaker of a Stevens poem not the actual Wallace Stevens, who
was an insurance man, husband, and father. Instead, the speaker is a poet, a person
with "an abnormal range of sensibilities"—as Stevens describes in his poem "The
Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet"—whose gift is the ability to generate on the page
an "act of the mind" that has resonance for the active minds of his readers, his
"invisible audience." The invisible audience does not "listen" to the poem's wordplay
or narrative story but hearkens to the emotional resonance of the
poem. Listening achieves a special significance in Stevens's poetry: it exceeds the
simple notion of hearing. To listen is to take in what is being said at an emotional
level. The listener in "The Snow Man" is a clear demonstration of that very human
ability to listen emphatically, to hear emotionally. The poet's expression resonates
with the emotions of the audience. Each individual listener then experiences the
emotions the poet has elicited and, thus, arrives at the place of the speaker: "two /
Emotions becoming one," as Stevens describes in "Of Modern Poetry."
Thus, perspective is not only personal but also introspective. Although there are only
three poems in this collection that use a first-person "I," the rest are interior
monologues made public. In the monologues the content originates in an internal
voice of an unidentified speaker, and the poem is the externalized version. This often
gives the impression that the thoughts are spoken as they occur, that the poem
records the process of thought of a particular individual. In this sense the poems are
deeply personal. Yet, in their demanding readers' engagement with the process, the
production of the poems can be construed as a transactional process, beginning in
the personality of the poet and reaching out to an equally personal and likely intuitive
place in the mind of the reader.
Other poems in the collection begin with direct address, often an imperative such as
"One must have a mind of winter," the opening of "The Snow Man," or "Call the roller
of big cigars," the puzzling request that opens "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." In each
case an I/you relationship activates the poem. The reader is imposed upon to adopt
a certain mindset in "The Snow Man" or behave in a particular way in "The Emperor
of Ice-Cream."
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