John Gery: On "The Snow Man"

In "The Snow Man," which was originally published in 1921, Stevens typically unleashes his imagination in an ingenious manner. But from a post-nuclear perspective, ultimately his poem is a philosophic tour-de-force that suspends the mind a little too comfortably. By its use of simple diction and concrete imagery, the poem begins by lulling us through several tercets, before turning toward its paradoxical closure about nothingness:

[. . . .]

As an imagist might, Stevens captures a specific moment on a clear, cold January day after a snowstorm. The most complicated word he uses is "junipers," hardly a mind-stumper, and the imagery of the pine trees, junipers, and spruces firmly roots itself in the mind's eye. Furthermore, with its widely varied tetrameter line, stresses are determined by syntax more than syllables, creating a fluid, conversational rhythm. Indeed, syntax provides the key to its magic. All five stanzas comprise one sentence, which Stevens carefully strings through a series of infinitive phrases and subordinate clauses to tease us out of our present thoughts into his "mind of winter," that state of mind necessary to experience this landscape for itself. The main clause of the sentence uses the impersonal pronoun "one," which suspends the identity of reader and writer alike, and the modal auxiliary verb "must," implying a prerequisite condition yet also suggesting that "one" may well nothave the "mind of winter" needed to carry on through the poem. In this quickly established state of suspension, "one" adopts a "mind of winter"--either a brain made of snow like a snowman's (a virtual impossibility) or, more figuratively, the frame of mind one has during January in a cold climate.

Prompted by the clarity of the poem's first line, once we make the deceptively easy leap to a mind of winter we gain the power to perform three acts: "to regard" (an act both physical and cerebral), "to behold" (a physical act only), and "not to think" (an act most assuredly cerebral yet one that Stevens simultaneously negates). In a mind of winter, one can "regard" the scene before him or her, and if one has been "cold a long time" then he or she can look at that scene without thinking "of any misery" in its sights and sounds. Of course, not to attribute any emotional qualities to a landscape as a viewer perceives it is to be not a human but a "'snow man, so what the poet asks of us is possible only within the imagination.

From this point, we drift through the series of phrases and subordinate clauses away from our inherently "human" minds into the very "mind of winter" Stevens has created until we come to the sound of the wind. . . .

In these final six lines, Stevens includes no fewer than six subordinate clauses introduced by relative pronouns, each of which works to draw us further and further from our originally suspended state into his increasingly abstract landscape. Also, the imagery has become generalized: "The sound of the wind" and "the sound of a few leaves" have broadened to become "the sound of the land"; the vividly described trees in stanzas one and two have faded into "'the same bare place"; even the snowman has become merely "the listener" who is "nothing himself " and whose only function is to listen. Despite the visual strokes of the poem's opening, Stevens has drawn us artfully through his subtle qualifiers and negative terms until, as Robert Pack has noted, "Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snowman. We become the snowman, and we see winter through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort." Yet as Walton Litz contends, the poem is neither "a poem of negation" nor a "critique of the man without imagination," but "an affirmation of primary reality" that "'lays bare that irreducible reality upon which the poet builds his fictive structures, just as the lusher seasons build upon the frozen outlines of winter."

Finally and most pointedly, what the listener actually "beholds" in the last line is "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." In other words, the snowman beholds two phenomena: (a) "nothing that is not there" and (b) "the nothing that is" there. The overt repetition of "nothing" lures us into construing an entirely barren scene, but rephrasing the line according to its parallel structure actually creates a choice: Either the listener beholds the something that is there as well as the nothing that is not there, or, if we suspend the article "the" in the second clause, he beholds nothing that is not there and (yet) some thing that is not there. To say he beholds "'nothing that is not there" implies that he beholds only that which is there and nothing else: such a listener perceives only what is before him. On the other hand, to say he beholds "the nothing that is" (or some thing that is not there) can only mean that he beholds that which is not there, namely, nothingness--an absence which, for Stevens, is an imaginary, not a real, state of being. As Michael Davidson explains it, these "double negatives literally produce a 'nothing' that is both full and empty at the same time." No matter how we rephrase the line, the listener must admit to beholding these two phenomena of antipathetic natures--that which is only available to sense perception and that which is not available to sense perception but to the imagination.

To recall the poem's opening, for one with "a mind of winter," that "listener" who is "nothing himself," such a dichotomous, self-negating act of mind is possible with no disjunction of feeling. But for a human mind, that disjunction itself risks "misery," as the thought necessarily comes into conflict with our feeling about it. Consequently, to appreciate Stevens's expression of nothingness in this poem requires that we suspend our human part with its accompanying emotional baggage. In this way, as a modernist poem, "The Snow Man" stands as an evocative treatment of the mind in tension with its environment. As it follows the sentence's steady digressions, the mind alters its perspective on the winter landscape, while the landscape itself never changes. Instead, like Wordworth or Keats, Stevens draws us out of ourselves and sets us up for the paradox in the final line.

With imaginative lyricism, the poem approaches an almost ideal expression of nothingness, a landscape devoid of any human presence. As Edward Kessler has argued, "Stevens achieves what is probably the coldest, most naked poem in the language, a poem without hope or despair, good or evil--for all of these man-made ideas corrupt pure perception." Stevens himself, in a 1944 letter, describes the poem as "an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand and enjoy it." But how "real" is the "reality" of nothingness imagined here? As delicate a balance as Stevens strikes, does not a conceptual problem arise if we reread the poem's rhetorical strategy from the perspective of the "potentialist discourse" of nuclear annihilation? Without dismissing the complex nature of "reality" throughout Stevens's oeuvre, might we not ask about this poem what it costs, in terms of human consciousness, to achieve that prerequisite "mind of winter" necessary "to understand and enjoy" reality? The poem does, in fact, insinuate that death to the individual imagination would have to occur for one's mind to become the snowman's. But it does not take into consideration the erasure of the imagination beyond individual death. The point here is not to fault the poem or to detract from its light touch; rather, it is to draw attention to how Stevens concerns himself with an erasure of the imagination without feeling compelled also to consider that state of unimaginable nothingness beyond good and evil we call annihilation.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Gery: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Gery Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry
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