‘The Trouble with Snowmen’ by Roger McGough is a clever and surprisingly complex poem that uses the symbol of a snowman made of cement to speak about human existence, memory, and time. The mood of the poem transitions swiftly from amusing to contemplative and dark.
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Summary of The Trouble with Snowmen
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins with the lighthearted scenario of how one might build a snowman that does not melt in the sun. The speaker’s father, who has come up with a clever solution (building one out of cement), explains this is the only way to get it done. The snowman, whether simply a metaphor or a truly physical creation that haunts the speaker’s days, is present. Throughout the next stanzas, the speaker describes how he sees a snowman outside of his window as he ages and it does not. The father dies, children are born, and other snowmen are made from snow and then melt away in the sun.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Trouble with Snowmen
‘The Trouble with Snowmen’ by Roger McGough is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple and catchy rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There are also examples of half-rhyme in these lines.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, the repetitive “n” consonant sound in “sand and cement” in line three of the second stanza and “snow” and “men” in lines one and three of the first stanza.
Literary Devices in The Trouble with Snowmen
McGough makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Trouble with Snowmen’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, and a simile. The latter, a simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, when the speaker describes the snowman as “Out there in the garden / Like an unmarked gravestone”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “garden” and “gravestone” in the previous quote and “house” and “happen” in stanza five.
McGough also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation.
Analysis of The Trouble with Snowmen
Stanzas One and Two
The trouble with snowmen,’
And then have it cast.
In the first stanza of ‘The Trouble with Snowmen,’ the speaker begins by quoting a line his father once said to him. His father told him, very specifically, that the trouble with snowmen is that as soon as they’re complete they’ve disappeared. This very simple statement can be explored in-depth for deeper philosophical and moral repercussions. There are various solutions to how the symbol of the snowman relates to the larger the wider world and the complexities of human life in the next stanzas.
The second stanza is strikingly humorous. The father tells the son that the only way to build a snowman that lasts is one that is built out of “cement”. This act, which defeats the entire purpose of building a snowman, draws attention to itself through its own absurdity. A reader should also take notice of the use of sibilance in the last lines of the stanza and that of anaphora.
Stanzas Three and Four
And so every winter,’
Like an unmarked gravestone.
In the third stanza of ‘The Trouble with Snowmen,’ the speaker continues to relay his father’s words. His father told him that if they built a snowman out of sand and cement that there would be no way for it to disappear. No matter the weather, the snowman will be there, sunshine or rain. While the first three stanzas of this poem are fairly light-hearted, the fourth stanza takes a turn.
The speaker notes that his father has died and that snowman, which apparently, at least in this scenario, they did build, is the only thing left of him. This strange and absurd snowman moves through life and death untouched by the changing of the seasons and the passing of loved ones. The poet uses a simile to compare the snowman that now sits in his garden to an “unmarked gravestone“.
Staring up at the house
Bad to happen.
The fifth stanza becomes darker still. The snowman, which is made of cement but it’s not quite the correct shape, stares up at the speaker’s house day in and day out. It is “gross and misshapen“. This “misshapen“ snowman relays the inappropriate nature of materials that it is constructed out of. While it might be a reminder of his relationship with his father, whether that was a good one or a poor one, the snowman has also become something else. When he looks at it, it appears as though it is waiting for something “bad to happen“. It is a totem of bad luck that speaker can’t get rid of.
Stanzas Six and Seven
For as the years pass
And then fade away.
The sixth stanza describes how time has passed for the speaker. Just as time moves forward and his father died, time is moving forward again and the speaker is getting older. The years have gone by and the seasons have only grown in their intensity. Life is becoming more real but at the same time, less so. There is a natural order to things that the speaker is taking part in but at the same time, he is also connected to this unnatural snowman who is in pervious to the elements that should quickly mountain. In the final stance of this poem, the speaker address is this hat on. He “envies“ the snowmen that were made and then melt away as they should.
These creations, which follow the natural order of life and death, are more in tune with human life, relationships, and the process of aging. Time is a natural part of human existence that must be excepted and allowed to play out without bending the rules and building a snowman out of cement.