Daniel Tiffany: On "The Snow Man"

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 substantive—a 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 time—a 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":

The light 

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 flakes—the snow man—turns 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 

And snow.

 

("Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion," 357)

From Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © by the Regents of the University of California.

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Criticism Overview
Title Daniel Tiffany: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Daniel Tiffany Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Toy Medium: Materialism and the Modern Lyric
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