Interpretation and Analysis of Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man

Essay by sleeptodreamCollege, UndergraduateB+, July 2004

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"The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens is a poem which creates a unique dramatic situation through an effective imagery, and which compels the reader to employ another way of thinking in order to both understand the poem and realize its very theme.

The first thing that is noticeable about the poem is that it is actually just one long, complex sentence. There is no rhyme, and there is no particular meter. Each foot varies: the poem becomes a combination of iambs ("the frost," "and not," "the sound," "that is"), trochees ("winter," "glitter,"), anapests ("to regard," "to behold," "of the land"), dactyls ("junipers"), and others that are not of those kind ("that is blowing" - unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed). Also, each line has either 3 or 4 feet, and the variation per stanza is not even regular.

This very structure actualizes the opening line of the poem, which calls for "one [to] have the mind of winter."

The title suggests that this is actually the mind of "the snow man." By reading and reciting the poem, one gets the sense of assuming another mind whose thoughts are the contained in the rest of the poem. The poem's structure allows this by imitating the normal way of thought, which normally does not come in complete sentences, nor in rhymes or regular rhythm. Instead, mind activity is usually a "stream of consciousness," a continuous and an uninterrupted flow of thought. Thus, the structure is appropriate for the poem, and its theme - that of leaving behind one's own mind and assuming another's - is revealed.

One question that may arise with this function of the structure is this: if the poem really was meant to imitate the mind's flow of thought, then why did the poet not write the poem in just one long line instead of dividing it into five tercets of three lines each? The answer to this is another function of the structure, which is creating the poem's mood and tone. The dramatic situation is set on a cold and quiet winter day, with very little movement in the surroundings. The poem itself should be the same - gentle and unhurried, almost poignant - and it does achieve this through the necessary pauses after lines and stanzas.

Other parts in which the poem is given this mood and tone include the fourth line of the poem. Actually, this line acts as a supplement for the first line, as having "the mind of winter" is linked to "[being] cold a long time." It being placed here instead of being situated immediately after the first line provides a further "slowing down" of the poem itself. Moreover, the use of one-syllable stressed words, as well as the use of assonance with the long "o" sound ("cold...long"), makes the flow of the poem slower, also reinforcing the very idea of the "long time." The same idea of one-syllable stressed words and assonance is true for the last words of the third and fourth stanza: "few leaves," and "same bare place," respectively.

The support for the established theme, mood, and tone, is found in the subsequent lines, which can be taken as reasons for what the first line declares. It is seen that these lines could be divided into two groups which focus on different things: the first group includes the second, third, fifth, sixth, and the first half of the seventh line ("Of the January sun"), and the second group includes the second half of the eighth line ("in the sound of the wind") until thirteenth line ("For the listener, who listens in the snow").

First, the former evidently appeal to the reader's sense of sight. These lines contain little details about the landscape that are described in such a way as to evoke a clear image in the mind of the reader, who sees "the frost and the boughs of the pine-trees crusted with snow," "the junipers shagged with ice," "the spruces rough in the distant glitter of the January sun." The words are very particular, achieving nuances which contribute to the vividness of the picture being conceived. For instance, the word "crusted" is used instead of "covered," suggesting not only what covers it, but also the snow's firmness and roughness. Similarly, this quality of snow is depicted in the word "shagged" - a word commonly associated with coarseness - and directly stated with the word "rough." Additionally, it becomes obvious that the lines contain a lot of the "r" sound, as in "regard," "frost," "pine-trees," "crusted," "junipers," spruces," "rough," "glitter," and "January." The rolling, resonant sound of the "r" again contributes to the vividness of the description.

One particular image contained in these lines is that of the "distant glitter" (of the January sun). In this, the poem uses sound of the short "i" in an assonance to support this idea of something so distant that it is almost not there. The enjambment and the separation of the phrase "of the January sun" into another stanza, also relates this idea of distance.

The second group contains multiple instances of the word "sound," as well as the words "listener" and "listen." And there also is the prevailing sibilant sound of "s" - "misery," "sound," "leaves," "same," "listener," "listens," and "snow" - which mimics the hissing "sound of the wind...that is blowing in the same bare place." It is clear, therefore, that these lines aim to appeal to the reader's sense of hearing.

What this grouping achieves is the recognition of the process that "one" goes through in leaving behind his own mind and assuming another's mind, in this case that of "the snow man." He is able to view the world through different eyes, and thus is able to see the vivid little details of the scene, which he would not normally see. But it does not end there. It is common knowledge that the absence of one sense contributes to the acuteness of another. In this instance, it could be imagined that "one" closes his eyes - or gives up his sense of sight - and tries listening instead of looking, and so he is able to hear the normally soft, quiet "sound the wind...the sound of a few leaves."

A part which was excluded from the two groups is the phrase "and not to think / of any misery." The word "think" is emphasized because it comes at the end of the line (an enjambment, too), and because of the explosive sound of "k." The presence of the stressed word "not" calls again to the idea of assuming another mind, "not to think" in one's own way of thought. Furthermore, it calls for one to do away not only with thoughts, but also with feelings - "of any misery."

Another aspect of this process "one" goes through is the movement from something particular and small to something more vague and vast. The "boughs of pine-trees," "the junipers," and "the spruces" disappear to become "the same bare place," and "the sound of a few leaves" becomes "the sound of the land."

And so it is seen that assuming another's mind is essentially disregarding one's self. There is first a need to calm and slow down one's self, as the poem's mood and tone suggest; then there is a removal of one's personal thought and feelings, a reduction of one's senses from sight to hearing, and a loss of one's distinctiveness. And, since the mind being assumed is that of a lifeless snow man, "one" would ultimately become nothing, as stated in the 14th line - "And, nothing himself..." (This idea of "being nothing" is, ironically, stressed by putting the phrase, "nothing himself" in the middle of the line instead of at the beginning or end.)

But one's being "nothing" is not necessarily a bad thing. The 14th line ends with the word "beholds" - a verb which connotes something that is majestic and astounding, referred to in the last line: "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Since this line is the longest in the poem, and the use of the fricative "th" gives it an echoing sound, this line is very much emphasized, appropriate since it is the concluding line of the poem.

To "behold nothing that is not there" means not to behold whatever is not there, or else to behold only what is there. To "behold...the nothing that is" creates a paradox, as the "nothing" becomes "something" "that is," and brings to mind the oft-repeated phrase, "presence of an absence." But the combination of these justifies the use of the word "behold," for it is truly majestic to "see" both what is there and what is not there. And so finally, this last line gives a satisfying conclusion to the poem, as it is the ultimate reward for all "one" has to go through, for giving up one's self, for "[having] the mind of winter."