Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

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,
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,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens (1921)

After the first stanza, it’s reasonable to think: I should have a wintry mind so that I can regard this winter landscape appreciatively. I should be appropriately attuned to what I observe, especially if it is nature. I should be worthy of what I experience.

We are used to people who admonish us: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordworth). Before we can have “glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn,” we must change ourselves. Legions of religious thinkers have also urged us to make ourselves worthy of glimpses of the divine. As the Psalmist says, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”

This theory of the poem can survive the second stanza, where being “cold a long time” plays the role of having “a mind of winter,” and the objects are junipers with ice instead of pines with snow. It seems as if we should be cold like the trees. We may even feel a tinge of regret if we are too comfortable to regard nature’s austere beauty.

But this theory collapses in the third stanza, with the word “not.” It seems that we can regard a snowy landscape with or without a mind that resembles it. Only if the mind is not wintry and cold can we perceive misery. If we hear misery in the winter wind, we do not have a wintry mind.

Wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = no sensation of misery
Non-wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = sensation of misery

I, for one, assume that I ought to be able to feel suffering in nature. That would be an indication of my sensitivity, a virtue that poems often recommend.

Now I am beginning to wonder if I should avoid having a wintry mind and being cold for a long time. After all, the dead are the ones who are coldest for the longest. They are the ones without compassion.

Reading on (through the single sentence of this poem), we learn that the sound that could make us think of misery is a wind that blows “for the listener.” Does it have a purpose, an intention? Does it want to instruct us about misery–or about something else?

Before it concludes, the poem’s single sentence refutes such anthropomorphism. The land can’t think or talk. The poem instructs us that the listener (a “he”) is nothing; he only sees what the objective world offers, and he perceives nothing that actually is.

There isn’t misery in “the sound of a few leaves,” nor is there misery in the beholder (a listener and viewer), but there is misery–as well as “distant glitter”–in the experience, unless one is dead. The poem is a representation of the relationship between the mind and object (which, together, make a “snow man”).

One must have the wintry mind of an abstract modernist not to hear sadness in this.

[After I wrote this, I searched my own blog and found a response to the same poem that I’d written in 2012: the tree and the rock. See also: Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; and the fetter; Cuttings.]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.