I’ve missed the clarifying cold of winter, my favorite season. Once the stress and strife of the holidays have passed, I typically find myself spending more time outdoors, happily confronting the elements and appreciating nature’s quiescence. A snow-covered trail is a welcome challenge, but there’s a stillness unique to winter that I particularly enjoy.
The contemplative aspect of the season has never been expressed more eloquently than in the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man.”
In case you don’t know his story, Stevens was one of America’s greatest poets and also worked as an insurance executive at The Hartford for decades. He lived at 118 Westerly Terrace in Hartford and would compose poetry in the evenings and on the 2.4-mile walk to and from the office.
“The Snow Man” first appeared in the journal Poetry in 1921 and was then included in his first book “Harmonium,” published when Stevens was 44 years old. Critics immediately recognized his genius. Stevens would eventually develop a strong following among the reading public, as well. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collected poems in 1955. He died the same year at the age of 75, having lived an otherwise fairly ordinary life as an insurance executive. “The Snow Man” is one of his most critically acclaimed and popular poems.
But you can judge for yourself:
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.
In praise of the poem’s architecture, commentator Jay Keyser noted the repeated use of the word “and” drawing the reader in as the meaning deepens.
“That’s the trick of the poem,” he told NPR’s “All Things Considered” for a 2005 segment marking the 50th anniversary of Stevens’ death. “Each clause seems to be coming to an end and then suddenly up pops another ‘and.’ ...Stevens is forcing his readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again and again.”
On one level, the poem is about learning to see things as they are, free from preconceived notions. It’s about challenging your own assumptions and seeing life from a different perspective, perhaps experiencing it more openly and honestly.
But the themes of the poem are more philosophical than that. Stevens is contemplating the nature of reality, how reality is shaped by perception. In a 1944 letter, he described the poem as “an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand and enjoy it.”
Stevens saw the imagination as a vehicle for processing reality. “Imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos,” he once wrote.
In a brief five stanzas, Stevens invites readers to see the world through the eyes of the Snow Man and to gain a better understanding of reality.
What a beautiful thing.
Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.