Friday, January 30, 2015

THE SNOW MAN -- Wallace Stevens

An irresistible choice, I suppose, given that we’ve just experienced what was purported to be an historic storm, here in the New England area. In New Haven, not so much. Still. There is snow out there, and more to come.

Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” is a bit deceptive, as a poem. The title and the first line about “a mind of winter” suggest that this might be one of those American poems that school children learn, so they can go about reciting something every time it snows. The early twentieth-century equivalent of that song from Frozen, perhaps.

Stevens isn’t the kind of poet to write that kind of poem. We can leave that to Frost, I suppose, with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The implied end to all activity in the latter poem is more or less the starting place here. The “mind of winter,” the “listener in the snow.” These are “the snow man,” of course—and the idea of giving sentience to a snow man is certainly the kind of thing that would accord with popular entities like “Frosty the Snowman.” But Stevens isn’t after some cutesy idea of “how would a snow man feel.” He’s after something like the thoughts of a man of snow. A man who is part of the landscape (the way we all will be part of the landscape, some day), a landscape of snow.

The opening idea, then, is a supposition: “one must have a mind of winter” in order “to regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;”—that semi-colon lets us know the thought is continuing while letting us “regard” what the mind of winter regards, or, rather what having “a mind of winter” would enable us to regard: a frozen landscape. Can we not look at it without a mind of winter? Perhaps we could, and that’s why the thought must continue:

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; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind

We finally, after another semi-colon, arrive at the conclusion of the thought, but not before we are offered a restatement of “a mind of winter”—“cold a long time”—and another statement of the frozen landscape. The lines keep sketching the visual riches of the scene, cold as it might be: “boughs of the pine-trees crusted with snow,” “junipers shagged with ice,” and “spruces rough”—pines, junipers, spruces. There are living things out there in the snow. But our attention is on “one” who is able to regard all this—including, wonderfully, “the distant glitter / Of the January sun,” a palpable presence that is just enough to illuminate and not heat—and “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind.”

Warm in our homes, we tend to hear misery in the sound of the wind. It sounds frightful at times. Out there in the elements, we imagine, such a wind would be doing us a mischief. And so we realize what Stevens is getting at: we must imagine ourselves out there in the cold and the snow as in our natural element (as even the trees might not be) and find no misery in it at all. Now we have some idea of what “a mind of winter” means.

Then Stevens, as is his wont, decides to expatiate a bit on that sound. It isn’t just that “one” doesn’t think of misery in the sound of the wind, but we must also not hear misery: “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.”

That verse is a definite deflation, to my mind. Its repetitions: “in the sound,” “sound of the land,” “same wind,” “same bare place” seem to retard our progress. We step in place, we walk slowly. That sound, that same wind, continues to blow. The place is haunted by this lack of progress, lack, we should say, of volition. Sentience without volitional movement. A snow man frozen in place. And yet not hearing misery in “the sound of the land.” (Much might be said about what kind of land that is, and why “land” comes in there, but let's keep this short.)

And so that incessant wind, with its “few leaves,” stirs the sense of the living and the dead, makes us ponder what we are—if we aren’t trees or leaves or wind. We are land in a bare place. We are snow. We are replete in this landscape that we share our substance with. But we will not stay long.

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

We may, if we like, think that “one” has been a human listener all along, standing in the snow to observe and to hear what one may hear—much as Frost’s pilgrim does, taking in the snowy woods. But our listener here is also a man of snow, or conscious of himself as a man of snow—“nothing himself.” And so the repetition of “nothing” creates a tripartite sense. He is “nothing himself”—a nobody, anonymous, but even more: a non-entity. Devoid of character, in a void. Or rather perceiving, in the midst of the landscape we’ve already been asked to imagine, a void.

He sees only what is there. This is a stress that Stevens comes back to often: the effort, on the part of our senses, our notions, our ideas, to see only what is there. Our snow man, our mind of winter, does that. It has access to these basic elements, these unavoidable aspects of reality, and yet . . . such a mind, listening with no thought of misery, no sadness, also perceives “the nothing that is (there).” That nothing that is here as well. Wherever you find yourself, on this January day. The nothing that is us, because we are nothing ourselves. The nothing that, being nothing, we are. The nothing to which the snows go, eventually.

Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Hamlet: Nothing.

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