The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

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 mourning.

Read more:   Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

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 poets.

His most well-known poems include, “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Snow Man,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

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