W Wallace Stevens

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

‘The Snow Man’ was first published in Poetry magazine in 1921. This poem features the poet’s perspectivism concerning an image of the wintry landscape.

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.

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

 

Summary

‘The Snow Man’ by Wallace Stevens describes the world humans visualize as “nothing” if they do not have perspectives.

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.

 

Structure

‘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.

 

Literary Devices

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

Stanza One

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.

 

Stanza Two

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.

 

Stanza Three

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.

 

Stanza Four

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.”

 

Stanza Five

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.

 

Historical Context

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.

His most well-known poems include, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, and ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Snow Man’.

You can also read about the best winter poems and incredible poems on hope.

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      and the gwang?

  • >

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