Beverly Maeder: On "The Snow Man"

. . . 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. Martin’s Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.

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Title Beverly Maeder: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Beverly Maeder Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
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