Anthony Whiting: On "The Snow Man"

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 areshagged 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.


Title Anthony Whiting: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anthony Whiting Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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