Wallace Stevens, an American modernist poet, presents his perspective regarding the idea of winter in his poem, ‘The Snow Man’. This poem is not that simple as the title hints. Rather it is about the complexities of the human mind and their perspective of seeing a thing. In this poem, Stevens incorporates the ideas of perspectivism. According to him, the landscape does not change its color in response to any external stimuli. A person’s mind is responsible for investing in a scene, be it a wintry landscape or that of summer, specific attributes. If one is clear from the Illusions, nature will portray the reality as it is.
Explore 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.
You can read the full poem here.
‘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. This free verse poem contains several internal rhymings that maintain the flow. Apart from that, the metrical composition of the poem does not follow a specific pattern. For instance, the first tercet is in iambic tetrameter. While the second tercet is in iambic pentameter. However, this poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter with a few metrical variations.
The poem begins with a metaphor in the “mind of winter.” Here, the poet associates the essence of winter with a calm and peaceful mind. Thereafter, the poet presents an image of the pine-trees crusted with snow. It seems as if here the poet metaphorically depicting a sculpture. In the first line of the second stanza, Stevens uses metonymy by using the word “cold”. Here, “cold” is a metonym for peacefulness. The third tercet contains anaphora on the first two lines. There is also a repetition of the “f” sound in this stanza. Such repetition is called alliteration. The last stanza of this poem contains an epigram.
Analysis of The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
Stevens begins this poem, ‘The Snow Man’, 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 who 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 affected 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.
And have been cold a long time
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Stevens continues into the next stanza with another characteristic of what it is to be a snowman. One must “have been cold a long time…” or simply, have had a “mind of winter” for a long 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
In the sound of a few leaves,
In the third stanza of ‘The Snow Man’, 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, is unable to transform.
It is at this point that the poem turns and Stevens begins to finish his initial thought regarding snowman 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.
Which is the sound of the land
That is blowing in the same bare place
The fourth stanza continues with a 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 snowman 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.”
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
In the last stanza of ‘The Snow Man’, the poet remarks the sound 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 some interesting questions about how 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 ideas that Stevens is confronting in this short piece.
Stevens’ poem ‘The Snow Man’ was first published in the October 1921 issue of the journal Poetry. This poem belongs to his first book of poetry “Harmonium”. However, this poem of Stevens is often considered as a poem of epistemology and contains naturalistic skepticism. In this poem, the poet expresses his perspectivism. According to Leggett, “instead of facts we have perspectives, none privileged over the others as truer or more nearly in accord with things as they are, although not for that reason all equal.” On this concept, the poet presents his perspective regarding the landscape. Additionally, he creates a contrast between imagination and reality in this poem.
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 to become a writer has 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 than he wanted to pursue a law degree, while in school he continued to write and 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.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Snow Man’.
- Winter by Anne Hunter – This poem describes the power of the winter months and the control they have over the poor people.
- Winter Landscape, with Rooks by Sylvia Plath – In this poem, Plath describes a speaker’s state of mind through the metaphor of a dark and lifeless landscape. It is one of the best poems of Sylvia Plath.
- Dust of Snow by Robert Frost – It’s one of the best-known poems of Robert Frost. This poem features the themes of stress and depression.
- First Sight by Philip Larkin – This poem conveys that nothing in life is permanent and there is light behind every darkness. It’s one of the popular poems of Larkin.