The Snow Man

The story about the plagiarizing poet doesn’t end. It turns out she thinks that the following poem is about children building a snowman:

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.
She is a stereotypical Freshman student who thinks it’s enough to read the title and that Wikipedia is a the fount of all wisdom.

18 thoughts on “The Snow Man”

  1. Poetry has always been very hard for me, but I want to give a try at understanding. Hope it won’t be completely wrong, and would love to hear your thoughts on the poem.

    What I got is the connection between perceptions of the outer world and inner reality:

    While most would see only bareness in winter nature / misery in life’s hardships, the select few with “a mind of winter” would concentrate on the elements of beauty so much that thoughts “Of any misery” would evade them.

    Those few people who “have been cold a long time” have experienced many difficulties in life, yet – instead of breaking or turning to cynicism – became stronger and acquired the ability to accept life’s imperfections and their own insignificance to the universe ( being “nothing himself” ) while enjoying the beauty lurking in most unlikely places.

    I have difficulty with “beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

    “Nothing that is not there” = potential , opportunities / the same place in spring (?)

    ” nothing that is” = the present beauty of winter / of life despite everything (?)


  2. As for the title, it made me think associatively about “a man of steel”, about strength. The person (re?)made himself into somebody who would feel at home in harsh environments / situations.


  3. My initial thoughts on reading this, were that it’s a commentary on man’s relationship to nature and that it is an rare human who can look at and understand the utter meaninglessness of his/her human life in the grand scheme of nature and not give in to despair.

    I also showed the poem to my husband and his initial thought that it was a commentary on the hardness of heart required to survive difficult times of war, oppression and dictatorship.

    It definitely has nothing to do with a snowman.

    I’ll be interested to hear what Clarissa has to say.


  4. I think this has to do with a philosophical discussion of nothingness, which I bounded off of way back when, but not without a bit of it rubbing off on me.

    Basically, the problem with ‘nothing’ as a concept is that it should have no referent, ‘nothing’ is about nothing. But you can’t take that as literally true, because, then, how is it even possible to speak or even think of ‘nothing.’ How do you conceptualize something – which no one really has any problem with in practise – when it by definition cannot exist?

    It’s a weird, old philosophical chestnut.

    For some people, the solution seems to be to treat nothingness as both a purely human phenomenon and something that actually does exist. There’s no nothingness outside of human conceptual worlds, but it’s plentiful and abound there.

    Because snow, winter, cold are rather consistently paired up with various forms of negation, I can confidently, earnestly say that Snow Man is a pun for No Man.

    The actual person in the poem, I think, is again thinking in terms of negation – about how the natural world that surrounds him has no bearing on the human world of emotions and judgements (‘beholds nothing that is not there’). The ‘nothing that is’ is the man’s self-observed mental activity, thinking in terms of negating common preconceptions.

    I also think the poem isn’t laudatory of the guy, exactly. The poem gives no indication that he’s actually getting anything pleasing or good out of standing out there in the cold, merely that he is successful in avoiding thinking of misery. I think some understanding and even respect is afforded to their presumed capacity to observe clearly and without judgement. But then this capacity is questioned – the man isn’t as perfect an observer as implied, but a bearer of a specific temperament with a specific history. Furthermore, that temperament and history are consistently likened to winter, and winter is apparently evaluated as sad by everyone but the snow man. So the man must himself be sad by the evaluation of everyone else, where he’s just neutral on the whole matter.

    Becoming so much like winter that you opt to eliminate sadness altogether is in itself sad. But then, if you’re wintery enough, you probably won’t care. The two interpretations of man/winter are mutually exclusive and the text doesn’t give enough support for either of them to break the tie. Except suspending judgement like that is apparently a wintery thing to do, so the whole text is written from the perspective of a snow man.

    Honestly, I think it may be an early, far more eloquent version of the stuff Clarissa complains about so often – a person attempting to prove their objectivity by pointing out, as painstakingly as they can, the limitations of their own point of view and the impossibility of objectivity in general.


  5. Well, the title is better than the poem, anyway.

    Hey, do you really need 15 lines to say that a cynical human being is standing out in wintry weather and thinking nihilistic thoughts?


    1. It’s a pretty short poem. Why did Shakespeare need 14 whole lines to say, “When I am wallowing in grief, and think of you, my mood changes 180 degrees.” Why did Milton need an epic poem to recount something told in Genesis in a few pages?


    2. Dreidel, must the person be cynical, especially when he is the only one noticing beauty? May be, it’s my insufficient English, but he seems to be describing what others see as barren in positive ways:

      “regard the frost” – “regard” as a noun also means “respect or admiration”

      “crusted with snow” – like a pie crust (something nice and connected to domesticity)

      “shagged with ice” – the sound of the verb made me think of “hugged” , but it means “to make rough or shaggy”. In Russian, the translation “взлохмачивать” (dishevel, ruffle) doesn’t have to mean something bad.

      “rough in the distant glitter” – rough vs. glitter (the latter being connected to beauty)

      I checked and there are different kinds of nihilism:

      existential nihilism – “life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value”
      moral – ” there is no inherent morality”
      metaphysical forms – belief that “knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.”

      If someone adopts existential nihilism, why must he also adopt other kinds too?


  6. I often like poems, but cannot imagine f.e. taking a book of Stevens’ poems and starting to read like a novel.

    This poem has beauty in it, but to access it I need make a significant effort and then still end up feeling bad because of missing something important.

    Clarissa, do you want to add a weekly feature of posting your favorite short(er) poems? I would love to think and compare yours, readers’ and mine interpretations.


    1. I don’t have a very profound response to the poem. I love it because I love winter and seeing barren, snowed-over landscapes makes me feel the plenitude of life like nothing else.


      1. My interpretation of the poem is that it’s about perception, some people can look at winter and see winter and not despair (this is far from me, who has very mixed feelings about wintery weather)

        In this sense maybe ‘mind of winter’ is cold rationality (or detachment) that allows a person to perceive and experience the totality of a place and time.


  7. The poem is a startling refutation of the pathetic fallacy, or the attribution of human emotions to natural scenes (Ruskin). The mind of winter does not regard any misery in the cold winter wind, as a more conventional mind might. It is not even nihilistic (in the pejorative sense), since it is content with perceiving things as they are, “nothing that is not there.” The “nothing” that is there is not threatening either to one who’s been cold a long time, or practiced this sort of perception for a long time. Of course we might resist this line of thinking and ask what the speaker has given up in life to be so “cold.”

    He is the snow man of the title–a title that is in a kind of tension with the poem itself, since the poem does not turn out to be about a snow man in the literal sense (pace Bialosky). Of course Stevens was known for his brilliant titling of poems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The poem is a startling refutation of the pathetic fallacy, or the attribution of human emotions to natural scenes”

      Not that close, but not a million miles away from what I said. I’m impressed at myself, I’m usually pretty bad at these things.


    2. The weird thing about the poem for me and the reason I can’t read it as a straightforward refutation is that the relationship between nature and emotions isn’t removed, but inverted.

      So junipers and spruces can’t be miserable, we don’t attribute emotions to nature, sure.

      But winter, cold and similar natural phenomena can share qualities with a human mind?

      How is saying that a mind is cold different from saying that pine trees are full of sorrow?

      Is that tension part of the poem, or is the writer just messing with what the audience’s expectations would have been at the time?


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