On "The Snow Man"
In the remarkable poem "The Snow man," Steven dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.
[. . . .]
We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification. Then we see with the sharpest eye the images of winter: "pine-trees crusted with snow," "junipers shagged with ice," "spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun." We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: "sound of the wind," "sound of a few leaves," "sound of the land," "same wind," "same bare place," "For the listener, who listens in the snow." The "one" with whom the reader has identified himself has now become "the listener, who listens in the snow"; he has become the snow man, and he knows winter with a mind of winter, knows it in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling. But at that point when he sees the winter scene reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind, but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees "nothing that is not there," then the scene, devoid of its imaginative correspondences, has become "the nothing that is."
From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.
" When we think of a snowman, most of us visualize balls of snow placed on top of each other, coals for eyes, a carrot nose, and the like. I mention these details only to point out Stevens does not. His poem does not describe but merely invokes "The Snow Man" by mentioning him in the title; thereafter the snowman is involved in the poem only as a metaphor of a metaphor. He is a metaphor of a "mind of winter," and this, in turn, is a metaphor of something even more abstract: a mind that entertains nothingness.
But it is easy to imagine that whoever speaks or thinks this poem is himself looking at a snowman. In this case the poem may be related to the descriptive-meditative tradition in English poetry that comes down to us from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. A convention organizing all such poems is that the poet finds himself at some place or views some prospect or object. The poem describes what is seen and, as it proceeds, enacts a train of thought and feeling occasioned immediately by the place or object and referring repeatedly to it. Stevens "The Snow Man" presents the meditation with the description omitted. As "meditation," its form is thinking, the mind in activity, and this is also in part its subject, The poem is one sentence. It proceeds by amplification, illustrating the inherent dynamism of the mind, its fertile power to proceed on its own impulse.
Still dwelling on "The Snow Man," we may note that the poem posits two types of listener. One would hear a "misery in the sound of the wind." Through his own imaginative creativity he would project a human emotion into the scene and locate it there. Thus, he would make the landscape one with which human beings can feel sympathy. The other listener would hear nothing more than the sound of the wind. He would exert none of this spontaneous and almost inevitable creativity. The poem embodies Stevens central theme, the relation between imagination and reality. Endless permutations of this theme were possible. Was reality the world seen without imagination? If so, was imagination the world seen without reality? That was a bitter truth, if it was the truth. But perhaps the snowman, who heard no "misery" in the wind, was projecting himself into the scene just as much as the other listener. Perhaps the snowman beheld nothing only because he was "nothing himself," since, to cite a later poem, whoever "puts a pineapple together" always sees it "in the tangent of himself."
from David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1976), 542-544.
In a poem like ‘The Snow Man’ the exacting eye registers not merging but a precise equivalence; consciousness must cut back, not expand. ‘The Snow Man’ is a rejection of the idea that nature is the vehicle of human splendours and miseries; rather, the creative consciousness must discipline itself to a condition of wintriness in order to apprehend without embellishment: ‘One must have a mind of winter’.
The condition of having ‘been cold a long time’ is not really a deprivation, although it involves depriving oneself of easy ecstasies, but is rather a condition of acutest, clearest perception:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothmg that is not there and the nothing that is.
The listener does not confuse his own moods with the sound of the wind, and in the recognition that the landscape is not there to inflate his consciousness, he is thus enabled to ‘behold’ (a significant verb in Stevens, denoting privileged insight) ‘Nothing that is not there’, i.e. the scene without embellishment, with nothing extraneous, and ‘the nothing that is, i.e. with an understanding of its essential bareness, its irreducible reality. This is not a grandiose claim for the infinite extent of consciousness, but it is nevertheless a heroic effort of perception, a Modernist reassessment of Transcendentalist vision, a revision of Emerson’s ecstatic merging in the more sustained awareness of the separation of consciousness and nature. Stevens is trying to make ‘a new intelligence prevail’, an intelligence which understands the strategies of consciousness as fictions rather than religious truths.
From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.
The opening lines could almost be an imagist exercise. At the least, they avoid the "don'ts" that Pound laid down in his 1913 essay on imagism: "Use no superfluous word," "Go in fear of abstractions," "Don't be 'viewy.'" The landscape depicted in these lines, however, is far from being stripped bare of the self. The highly decorative language used to describe the landscape suggests that sight itself is a mode of self-projection. The pine trees are crusted with snow; the junipers are shagged with ice, and the spruces are rough in the distant glitter. The landscape that is seen is the landscape that the mind beautifully "decorates" with language.
This self-projection is stripped away in the next six lines, which shift from a visual to an aural mode:
and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place.
The shift from sight to sound is telling. Stevens often opposes human language to the language or speech of nature, which, being inhuman, is to us pure sound. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," for example, Stevens writes,
Whose spirit is this?
. . . . . . .
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.
We hear the "speech" of nature again in "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," and there, as in "The Idea of Order at Key West," the language spoken by the "fluent mundo" is pure sound, what Stevens calls "gibberish" (CP 396). The sound of the wind "blowing in the same bare place" in "The Snow Man" anticipates, how-ever, not the "summer sound" of "Key West" but the "desolate sound" that is heard "beneath / The stillness of everything gone" in " Autumn Refrain" (CP 160) and "the cry of the leaves" that "concerns no one at all" in "The Course of a Particular" (OP 123, 124). The movement in "The Snow Man " from a visual mode to an aural one, then, signals a further reduction of the mind's presence in the landscape. By stripping away its decorative projections onto the landscape through the language of sight, the mind is left with the sound of bare nature.
Yet even sound in "The Snow Man" can be a vehicle for self-projection. Stevens does not directly attribute misery to the sound of the wind. He says that one must be cold a long time not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. What Stevens is asking is whether one can be cold enough to hear the language of nature and not turn it into human language by attributing misery to it. The final lines of the poem suggest that this degree of cold can be reached.
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
To behold nothing that is not there is to behold reality stripped of all that the self attributes to it. Since misery is not part of nature but something that the self adds to it, to behold nothing that is not there suggests that it is possible not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.
The reduction of all concepts from nature in "The Snow Man" turns the mind's attention from the world created by the self to the larger universe. This redirection of the mind's gaze is expressed in part through the subtle change in perspective from the particular and located to the unspecified and vast that occurs in the poem. Stevens begins this shift in perspective with the change from the very close detail of the "pine-trees crusted with snow" (CP 9; emphasis added) to the particular but more remote "spruces rough in the distant glitter" (CP 10; emphasis added). In lines 7-12, Stevens drops spatial metaphors altogether, and he shifts from the distant glitter of the spruces to the unlocated though particularized "sound of a few leaves" (CP 10). The particularity of the "few leaves" is dropped for the less specified "sound of the land," which in turn gives way to a "bare place" (CP 10). And even this bare place threatens to evaporate in the repeated "nothing"s of the final two lines.
Stevens' use of the word "behold" also contributes to the sense that the mind is apprehending the larger universe at the end of "The Snow Man." "Behold" suggests in addition that Stevens views this apprehension as an extraordinary moment of heightened intensity. As well as expressing a sense of possession, the word "behold" also expresses a sense of revelation, in the biblical sense of the revelation of extraordinary things. We "behold" acts of God, miracles, mysteries. "Behold," God said after creating the world, "I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree" (Gen. 1:29). As "The Snow Man " moves toward its reductive extreme, the perspective widens and the tone of the poem becomes elevated and more serious. At the poem's conclusion, "the nothing that is," pure being, is beheld, magisterially "revealed" and "possessed." . . .
"The Snow Man" also points to the need for creative activity. It sets itself against the modernist impulse, seen in Pound and Williams, that would restrict the mind's activity to selecting and arranging experience but not adding to it by showing that without the active contribution of the mind, the world can only be apprehended as "the nothing that is." It is a point that Stevens will return to thirty years later in his discussion of "modern reality" in "The Relations between Poetry and Painting." "She [Simone Weil] says that decreation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers" (NA 174-75). In Stevens' usage, decreation has two aspects. The first, seen at perhaps its most extreme in "The Snow Man," is "making pass from the created to the uncreated." By decreating its projections on to the world, the mind beholds not "nothingness" but "the nothing that is." This reductive process leads to a recognition of our creative power, that is, our power to create what Stevens says painters such as Cezanne and Klee create, "a new reality" (NA 174).
from The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.
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 not have 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.
. . . numerous other poems from Harmonium develop a surface complexity to foreground the deployment of poetic/linguistic space in way as to show that language itself is a place for a speculation within its own terms, on the basis of its own relations. A poem that does this with particular intensity is "The Snow Man," which has been seen as revealing what Vendler calls "a terrifying blank." Certainly this is the nexus of the poem, that without which it could not exist. Yet, the poem's own "presence" has a seductiveness that is attested to by both the quality and the quantity of critical attention it has received. Its "bare rigor" was appreciated by a reviewer of the first edition of Harmonium, and it has since attracted critics concerned with issues of consciousness and the traces of romantic problematics in Stevens' poetry. Its cognitive implications have been inferred from its grammar and lexis and the poetic form they are cast in. Fundamentally, readers see it as a meditative poem, and many would agree with some variant of Bloom's estimate that the poem both states and enacts a rejection of the pathetic fallacy.
The poem is logically structured along two grammatically dependent hypotheses. The first hypothetical act (II. 1-7) involves the specular, as if one's "mind of winter" were going to be mirrored in the glittering visual and tactile fullness of the natural scene. The second hypothetical act (I. 7-15) withdraws thinking from the first mode of visual clutter by enacting a complicated praeteritio ("One must have" x "not to think") that introduces the auditory aspects of the scene. Timothy Bahti has written that when we consider the poem as it moves across its formal space from beginning to end/ending, the effect of the "logic of this turn in the middle . . . is to call the scene to the mind and, in the immediate negation, to call the mind away from it. It is an abstraction that renders concrete." Human consciousness in such a reading is drawn away from the sound of the wind and the concatenation that ensues. The imagined subject's reaction is defined only in terms of its negation: not thinking of a human emotion, "misery." This would be what it is to have a mind of winter or, as Macksey suggests in one of the earlier phenomenological interpretations, to practice the "chastity of the intellect" that is the kernel of Santayana's definition of skepticism. It keeps the hypothetical subject of consciousness--a snow man like the title's--safe from projecting himself onto the scene or confusing his own emotions (if he has any) with the nature of his surroundings.
From the points of view of the imagined speaker and the potential reader, on the other hand, refuge is not possible. The poem's imagery progresses from a place that is overfull to a place that is bare lexically but full in another way. The turn following the "January sun" leaves the first of Janus' faces in our minds while displaying the second face that is less suggestive semantically but more intricate syntactically. The "thinginess" of the beginning of the poem is underscored by the presence of a rich repertory of Germanic words, set off by the French-like "regard." The two French senses of "considering" and "looking" imbue the first tercet with the temptation of detachment, but paradoxically, despite the negation of the "turn in the middle," this possibility is counteracted by the willfulness of "behold" in the second and final tercets. There is no slackening of attention. Even the principle underlying the choice of vocabulary mimes this meaning. The referential movement goes from species to genus, from narrowly synecdochal "instances" (see "Theory") to more inclusive ones: from "pine-trees crusted," "junipers shagged," and "spruces rough" to "the sound of the wind," "the sound of the land," "the same wind" and "the same bare place," and finally to the triple "nothing." The words for texture and light are seemingly drawn from a huge repertory of terms that differentiate among particular things and visions, whereas the words evoking the sounds heard are reduced to plain words that do not differentiate. But these words"wind" and "land," and "sound," "same," and "nothing"--are differentiated by being repeated in similar but not identical syntactic contexts. The circling repetitions of nouns and prepositions, as well as alliteration, consonance, and assonance, of this second half may be said to produce phonetically the monotonous opaqueness of the wind's speechless voice.
In the final embedded clause the "listener" is "nothing himself" and "beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Most readers have argued that "nothing" is either an index of absence or a sign of "no thing," that is, something other than a reified "thing," and therefore a noumenal and unutterable beyond. Pushed to their breaking points, such arguments read the poem as merely punning or, more threateningly, as nihilistic, especially since the listener is the ultimate object "For" whom the wind is blowing. It is true that even on the most literal level of the sentence's grammar, the final two lines of the poem are open to numerous readings, the most contradictory constructions involving the poem's strong closing use of to be in "the nothing that is." This form can either represent the absolute use of "is" to mean "does exist," or it can be an elliptical form for the locative: "the nothing that is there." Thus we have an ontological statement and a self-reflexive statement at the same time. What is more, their further interpretations seem to be mutually exclusive: on the one hand we have the nothing that exists rather than the nothing that does not exist, and on the other we have the nothing that is not there or the nothing that is elsewhere. Yet, as I shall show, one of the acutest senses created by the poem is that the final "is" is the positive final point in the excursion established by the language of the poem.
What is the effect of this balancing act? Although "The Snow Man" indeed referentially presents the temptation of accepting the void of or beyond thought, the poem has the power to eliminate a restrictive view of "nothing." Placing it in a locus of "there" also creates a sonorous context of fricatives, heard in "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Its broader context is a murmuring repetition of sibilants (/s/), perhaps a miming of a windlike, leaflike, landlike sound. The local, provincial character of "the nothing" is also something. "[T]he nothing that is" marks the only "being" in the poem, the end of the excursion, but not a dead end. It introduces in extremis an artificial differentiation between "nothing" and "the nothing." The definite article makes "the nothing" the user's own, familiar "nothing," a word artificially marked as willingly used and willingly predicated by that absolute "is." Is is among our most familiar language objects or sites yet it becomes slightly exotic here and suggestive not only of worlds that are concealed or revealed by language, but also of the place not outside of language but made by it. In this sense, "nothing" or no thing is metonymic for "no place," and "the nothing" is the place where the "nothing" that has replaced the self (1.14) is--that is, the place where the sound of the language is structured by the poem's grammar and syntax.
It is in part because of the fullness of the first half that we notice the spareness of the second half and shift our attention from the luxuriance of lexis in the first to the intricacy of syntactic repetitions and relations in the second. If we can have a mind of winter, not seeing this as "misery" is one of the non-ontological activities the poem invites us to participate in. Like the jar represented in "Anecdote of the Jar," the poem can be understood as not "giv[ing] of bird or bush" while yet having "dominion" over all: its representational authority over nature is ambivalent, while its patterned word-world is clearly the sign of the power of artifice and of the artificer to create this syntactical thing.
In the second part of the poem the artifice of linguistic construction is signaled by the density of prepositional constructions, particularly the insistent repetition of in and of as a tactic for creating relationships of proximity. The denied misery is thus situated (11. 8-13):
... in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow (emphasis added)
Rather than having full semantic meaning, prepositions are function words that establish relations between other words. Here in is an obvious place marker. The relation established by an even less precise of in "the sound of' "the wind," "a few leaves," and "the land," although it indexes authorship or origin, is particularly ambiguous and seems rather to point to substance, on the model of "Full of." The connections worked among these phrases recall the process of "Domination of Black" (which precedes "The Snow Man" in Harmonium), in which the "leaves themselves / Turning in the wind" set off a seemingly self-perpetuating sequence of images that become involuted and blur the source of the threatening sound of the peacocks. So in "The Snow Man," the turning participial phrases confuse our notion of any primary or originating authority in nature. The repetition and rhythmic variation worked with the function words of and in foreground instead the English language as the place or locus within which the predicated lines of inclusion are blurred.
That by now familiar marker, the verb to be, also plays a role in this move toward a pattern of non-distinction that, against all of our ingrained trust in the ability of language to bring forth the reality principle, heightens the extra-ontological and intralinguistic materiality of the poem's speculative activity. Many critics have considered that the principal metaphysical allusion in "The Snow Man" is Emerson's "Nature," in particular the famous passage in which Emerson describes himself crossing a bare Common, and finding himself on "bare ground' where he be comes one with nature, through the vehicle of his "transparent eyeball." "I am nothing," he says; "I see all." But as Cook remarks, "The Snow Man" is less an allusive poem than a riddle poem, and it plays not only with the content of paradox but with paradox itself. Linguistically, it is a tautology that is at the crux of the poem's linguistic extra-ontological speculation. A tautology is usually in the form of a verbal copula. A tautological proposition is a definition in which the definer adds nothing to the defined, thereby allowing the proposition to be automatically "true." This is what we find in the bridge between the third and fourth tercets of "The Snow Man" in a formula that brings close to each other the sounds represented in the landscape (11. 8-10):
... in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
"Which is" refers back either to "the sound of a few leaves" or to each of "the sound of the wind" and "the sound of a few leaves." The relation between the second "sound" and the preceding "sound of the wind" is uneasy. If the land may temporarily seem to be the supreme figure in the groping movement toward definition, its originary power is overturned by "the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place" (11. 10-12). This makes the wind the supreme figure, the dominant force in the scene and the moving principle of the syntax. We should note in passing that the "is" of "is blowing" fleetingly suggests a spurious moment of existence before becoming a mere auxiliary. But what is interesting about the longer structure around "which is" is that it makes the wind both container and contained. Although being full of something and being something are not quite the same thing, we cannot help noticing that Stevens has his copula "is" create a tautological definition that turns back on itself and conflates land and wind and, metaphorically, earth and air, body and breath, graphic signs and sound waves.
The pattern created in the quasi tautology here illustrates one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's statements about tautology generally, that "the conditions of agreement with the world--the representational relations--cancel one another, so that it does not stand in any representational relation to reality." Stevens' copular "which is" sets up a formula that is somehow "true" by its formal structure but may not represent "reality" as a proposition; the "presenting relations" "cancel one another." But the formula is not empty, just as the zero of arithmetic is not empty but is part of the "symbolism" of arithmetic. Rather, it brings into its scope new terms ("wind" ® "leaves" ® "land" ® "place," and finally ® "nothing") even as it repeats the old ones ("in the sound," "of the same," "in the same," and various combinations of these words). The concatenation adds new "worded" spaces to what has come before without reaching back to erase.
It seems to me that the reader's eye and ear are made to took at and listen to English as the very specific, even provincial locus of meditation--indeed, as the meditation itself. The poem creates an environment in which we may meet light, texture and form, and in which we can establish relations. There is a quasi-iconic effect of first depositing "The Snow Man" as title and as potential observer/experiencer on the beginning edge of the poem (the text that describes the scene). We perceive that our "behold[ing]" is parallel to the snow man's, a beholding that moves from without to within the word-world. The locus of meditative activity is the very words of the poem, which are emitted by an anonymous, hidden speaker.
Let us come back again to "the nothing that is." Bloom is not the only critic to have lingered over the sense of this last phrase. Whereas Miller sees the "nothing that is" as "being," showing that being is not like other things, Bloom sees it rather as "a trope-undoing trope." His interpretation, although it has a totally different orientation than mine here, points to an identical necessity of considering the poem as a continuum in which the first half is not erased by the turn in the middle. On the level of the poem's fiction, the beholder or the beholder's surrogate remains implied with some form of human intervention through language. The resulting artefact is the work of a highly disciplined artificer. The challenge this poem presents should not be reduced to ontological decrypting of a referent alone. The intimate exploration into language is facilitated by the concealment of any personal voice. But the obvious aesthetic pleasure readers have procured from both the "glitter" and the "misery" parts attests to an intense engagement with the voicing of the vast yet regulated possibilities of the English language.
From Wallace Stevens Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.
One of the most frequently cited of the early poems of epistemology, "The Snow Man" (CP, 9) asks whether a world could remain over if point of view were canceled or what the features of a perspectiveless world might he. "The Snow Man" has been cited in support of any number of disparate interpretations of Stevens, although it has most frequently been given a realist reading, as an "affirmation of primal reality" (Litz, 100) or a "'plain reality' which harbors no mystical . . . element" (Leonard and Wharton, 65). In an influential early essay J. Hillis Miller identified the poem's "nothing" with being and argued that for Stevens nothingness is the underlying reality, "the source and end of everything" (Poetry of Being, 155). In Paul Bové's more recent Heideggerian reading the poem is said to record the process by which its speaker "sees the primordiality of Being-in-the-World" and learns that "he is ontologically identical with the other insofar as they are both part of 'what-is' existing in and by virtue of 'nothing'" (Destructive Poetics, 191). Against Miller and Bové I will argue that the "nothing" of the poem may be read with less strain as Nietzsche's featureless becoming, the ground upon which we construct our worlds. . . .
The spare form of the poem evidently invites us to fill in its blank spaces with our own conceptions even as it indirectly warns us (in my Nietzschean reading) that the only mind that could match up with it perfectly would be a blank mind free of preconceptions, which would then comprehend nothing. This is not because the text would disappear any more than the landscape of the poem does--its presence is not i9n question--but because of the poem's implication that the reader, like "the listener, who listens in the snow," can make distinctions, identify features, "behold" the text meaningfully only through perspective, point of view. To state this in a more positive light--as a truly Nietzschean text, the poem is both an affirmation and a denial--we may say that the poem invites the imposition of its readers' perspectives since its epistemology denies that in the absence of perspective there can be any reading of a text or a landscape that produces anything other than "nothing."
For fourteen of its fifteen lines 'The Snow Man" appears to hold a very different epistemology. It suggests an operation by which a perceiver might truly behold a winter landscape. He "must have a mind of winter"; he must "have been cold a long time"; he must not "think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind. . . ." He must in short divest himself of any perspective that would interpret the scene. Once he is "nothing himself," devoid of any human perspective, he "beholds / Nothing that is not there," but here, five words from the end, an ideology hidden to this point asserts itself, one that if strictly observed would make problematical the imagery of the first fourteen lines. What he would then behold, the poem concludes, is "the nothing that is." Stripped of all human seeing and conceiving, rendered a part of the winter landscape as a "snow man" with a bare mind that is attuned to the "bare place" in the blank snow, he beholds nothing. Significantly, however, this is a nothing "that is." The poem does not deny the existence of its blank world; it simply assumes that any feature it might exhibit must be imposed on it by the perceiver. A perceiver who willed himself to impose nothing on the blank (if that were possible) would confront only the blank.
At this juncture, however, in the and of the last line ("Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"), we uncover a disruption that is akin to (but not identical with) the gaps or seams that Pierre Macherey has theorized in texts that incorporate conflicting ideologies. And Macherey's model is of use here primarily in suggesting the manner that literary texts unmask ideologies that in other forms may seem "natural" and hence invisible. The conflict in "The Snow Man" is one that is endemic to perspectivist texts--texts that adopt the implications of point of view as a theme or assume that the words of the text create things that do not exist without the words. Once we are alerted to its presence, it is a conflict that may be found in various forms in Nietzsche's texts, in those of his commentators, and in my own formulations of perspectivism.
The form this contradiction takes in "The Snow Man" is that its desired world of a perspectiveless beholding is given as the perspectival world that is to be surrendered. Or, to state the contradiction more sharply, it is the very world the, man in the snow is asked to obliterate that, he is informed, he will then regard once it has been erased. The poem begins:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun....
But of course we learn eventually that if a mind of winter were achieved, the snowman would not in fact regard pine trees, junipers, or spruces, since these designations are the most elementary examples of human abstraction and classification. Neither would he behold objects that are crusted, shagged, or glittering--all metaphors imposed on the scene. He would not see these objects in the light of a January sun, time and its divisions constituting another human ordering. He would not be aware that the spruces are being observed in the "distant glitter," since the concept of distance assumes a point of view. In brief, the qualities of the scene that interest us, that are described in such a way that they constitute the motive for assuming a particular kind of mental state, are precisely what are lost when this state is realized. The argument of the poem may thus be reduced to this form: in order to realize x, surrender the faculties by which x is realized.
This is not to suggest that the poem is unnecessarily muddled and could have been constructed in such a way as to escape its dilemma. It is not even to suggest that it falls into its trap unwittingly (and here my manner of interpretation differs slightly from Macherey's). My assumption is that the poem directly confronts the ironies of perspectivism, plainly exposing its paradoxes for all to see. . . .
The poem attempts to get rid of a manmade world but its language keeps reasserting what it relinquishes and thereby reveals what a much later text says outright: "the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined" (CP, 503). . . .
We might then ask: how are e to understand a vision of the uninterpreted nothing the poem seems intent on giving us if we must read it always as an interpreted something? And to take the argument back a step, how can we know such a poem's intent? If it asks us to understand in a way that is inaccessible to us, how are we to recognize even the nature of its requests? And would not such considerations guarantee that "The Snow Man" has never been understood? These questions raise the issue of whether any truly perspectivist text--because of its assumptions about the nature of understanding--could ever be understood on its own terms. If we take "The Snow Man" on its own terms, I would suggest, our only "understanding" could be comparative, in relation to different texts by Stevens and others. Our understanding of all texts is, in this broad and perhaps trivial sense, intertextual; we interpret texts in their relations to or in their differences from other texts. . . .
"The Snow Man" at least implicitly makes the same claim that nothing in the world has any intrinsic features of its own. But if that is the case, bow does the poem expect us to understand such a featureless world? The poem does not go on to suggest overtly that each thing is constituted solely through its interrelations with, and differences from, everything else, but that in fact is the way it defines its vision of "the nothing that is'"--by setting it against a view that projects human qualities onto the landscape, that hears "misery in the sound of the wind." Similarly, we may say that "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" assumes that the blackbird has no intrinsic features of its own, that each way of looking at it defines it, and, we now see, that each way of looking at it is understood in its difference from every other way. To apply Nietzsche's textual metaphor to these poems about the nature of interpretation, we could say that they must describe their worlds intertextually, characterizing each interpretation (of a text that is itself unknowable) as it differs from another. "Thirteen Ways" gives us a set of interpretations that "mean" in their differences; "The Snow Man" implies that we can have a sense of the primal text from which interpretations are derived by thinking of it in opposition to the interpretations themselves, the texts we create and project onto it. If all our interpretations were erased, what remained would be the text itself, except of course the metaphor falls apart at this point, since the assumption of the poem is that the text would be blank if its interpretations were erased., and a blank text is a form of the contradiction (to posit nothing as something) that haunts all strict formulations of perspectivism.
"The Snow Man" raises issues such as the one above--that is, by what mode may perspectivist texts be understood? how may they imagine a world without imagination? how do they escape their own textuality?--because it unmasks so successfully perspectivism's internal conflicts.
Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke UP.
The most famous meteoric body in Stevens's poetry is, of course, the "snow man"a figure enmeshed in dozens of references to snow and winter throughout Stevens's poetry. In the poem titled "The Snow Man," we encounter for the first time the one who "regards" things with "a mind of winter":
the listener who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The correspondence between the substance of the listener and the substance of the "element" he beholds (snow) depends on the ambiguity of "nothing." Grammar, of course, obliges us to treat nothing as a substantivea requirement the poem exploits to create a figure made of nothing: the snow man. What's more, "nothing," in this poem, is a substance capable of being both present and absent at the same timea characteristic it shares with other meteoric bodies in Stevens's poetry. And because snow is almost nothing (like Kepler's starlet), it shares in the ambiguous materiality of language, so that the listener, and also his song, is made of snow (or nothing). Snow, Stevens says in another poem, is the favorite medium of the "wise man," who avenges the loss of things "by building his city in snow" ("Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," 158). Indeed, the ephemeral (and ethereal) nature of snow is such that Stevens likes to confuse it with air or light, as he does in "The Poems of Our Climate":
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of the winter when afternoons return.
Ultimately, we should understand the snow man, made of nothing, to be no man. Stevens confirms this equation when, echoing a famous line of "The Snow Man," he refers to "No man that heard a wind in an empty place" ("Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas," 255).
Clearly, the figure of the snow man concerns an ethereal substance or medium that comprises the mind and the "elements" of nature, and thus implicates the mind in the foundation of matter. What is not evident from the passages I have cited, however, is the degree to which Stevens explicitly situates the snow man in the history of materialism. For Stevens is attentive, in other poems, to the relation between snow-flakes, and the forms produced by their accumulation, to
parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid
("Man Carrying Thing," 350-51)
More precisely, the "uncertain particles" of snowflakes mark the limit of Stevens's anatomy of the snow man:
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things,
A horror of thoughts that are suddenly real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in the cold.
The shape composed of ethereal flakesthe snow manturns out to be an emblem both of atomism and of the enigma of atomism, as when Stevens asks, in another poem, "When was it that the particles became / The whole man?" ("Things of August," 494). The "bright, obvious" thing consists of invisible "things"snowflakes, or thoughts "A horror of thoughts that are suddenly real." Hence the real is composed of the unreal, the material of the immaterial. In another poem, Stevens suggests more specifically that we might regard the elements or particles of things as images, or fragments of vision: "Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth, / Like seeing fallen brightly away" ("No Possum, No Sop, No Taters," 294). This beautiful passage calls to mind the illustration in the treatise by Olaus Magnus depicting snowflakes as eyes and other body parts. Correspondingly, the dazzling substance of snow in Stevens's poetry becomes an imageric substance, as if real things were made of pictures. At the same time, the body consisting of vision (or particles of vision) falls brightly away, returning to nothing, a radiant blur.
The "snow man" is only the most famous of the many types of "meteors" appearing in Stevens's poetry. Some are related directly to the weather: clouds, rain, mist, rainbows, thunder; others indirectly so. The first poem of Harmonium, for example, tells of the plight of young "bucks" in Oklahoma who find, with every step they take, "A firecat bristled in the way" ("Earthy Anecdote," 3). The poem remains puzzling, even inscrutable, until we see the stand-off between the "bucks" and the "firecat" as an encounter between the "earthy" body and the meteoric body of lyric. Generally, the weather functions for Stevens, as this poem indicates, as a kind of bestiary of elemental creatures, but also as a theater of metamorphosis:
The rain is pouring down. It is July.
There is lightning and the thickest thunder.
It is a spectacle. Scene 10 becomes 11,
In Series X, Act IV, et cetera.
People fallout of windows, trees tumble down.
Summer is changed to winter, the young grow old,
The air is full of children, statues, roofs
("Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion," 357)
from Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Copyright © by the Regents of the University of California.
"The Snow Man" is one long sentence in five oddly rhymed tercets, crystallized as verse. Like Frost's image of ice melting on a stove, the poem reveals itself as it slides along, warmed dangerously by human touch. The lesson is clear: leave a snow man alone, and it exists for itself, unchanged; touch the snow, and the artifice goes away, as it goes along. An object measures differently in motion than at rest, variously cold and hot: watch it disappear. Instead of the expected iambic opening ("I placed a jar"), the poem begins impersonally, with a tentative trochee, almost spondaic, "One must have a mind of winter." Right away, reverse field, the poem catches us in metric crux ("the trochee's heave," Pound said). A leveling cold serves to brace entry and numb stresses into anapests, even spondaic trochees: "and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow." The lines keep rocking with phonemic upheavals, "junipers-shagged with ice," and "distant glit ter / Of the January sun." A falling dactyl bridges the stanza break, "glitter / Of the," down to the iambic spondee, "same bare place" that leans across the gap "For the listener," who finally "beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." The last dazed line, twelve syllables shagged tetramically like rime ice, or hoarfrost, arrives as the poem's ,"terrible crystal" of negation and rediscovery: an initial trochee, "Nothing," an anapestic spondee, "that is not there," an anapest falling trochaically, "and the nothing," to a final affirmative iamb, "that is." Form is intrinsic rhythmic function: the interruptive patterns of spoken American syntax shoulder against the iambic meter, with errant anapests and trochees stringing out the talk-song, Frost might say, against the more regular metric strictures. A verse line should spring from the resilient strength of natural form, Frost argued for keeping the metric net up, "The straight crookedness of a good walking stick." And what comes of these thick poetics?
"The Snow Man" is an ice-sketched landscape, like Frost's "Desert Places," but its lyrically graced, barren chill leads to more than personal despair. Only the snow man knows himself, the poem knows of itself. Anthropomorphic sentiment, creating a human effigy of snow, must be balanced with the objective knowledge that "misery" plays a fa1se part in this scene. Learn of winter from winter, Basho would say. Pine, juniper, spruce, and leaves rough or "shagged" with snow (that is, "bearded") are just what they are to "a mind of winter." The trees are, after all, evergreens, Vendler notes, and January the "new" year. Imposing summer's loss on the image, a human sense of misery, or worse, the listener feeling "nothing himself," could melt the snow man in elegiac sentiment. Here is where the Other, outside our perceiving self, must be respected as a projection that both is, and is not: ourselves perceiving, Adam on time's seesaw, and a native it as nothing that is. Is is was, time's fall dictates, just as we perceive it. Thus the primitive, or primal Id, literally "it," is never here, but over therethe not-me or Other as a dark Narcissus flitting in the lost, forbidden shadows of consciousness, the singing bear's heart in shadowy silence. In postmodernist alterity, the other brother, Baudelaire's hypocrite lecteur, mirrors the dream ghost of my libido, the me-I-fear, or not-me me at the heart of my perceived being.
So the snow man is our wintry opposite, here, out there. This anti-man translates culturally as the natural or primitive self artifacted, the wild or savage native, disowned, driven down under the veneer of civilization. This distorting sublimation is an autumnal tug on the modern mind, fall eulogist to spring lyricist, especially in Adamic America, where "the poverty of dirt" haunts a "World without Peculiarity." . . .
from Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.
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