Snow man? What snow man? We don't see no stinkin' snow man.
Seriously. Where's the snow man? We were kind of excited.
Disappointed hopes aside, it's probably clear by now that this poem is not about three balls of snow and a carrot nose. There's no snow man here. In fact, there's practically nobody in the poem at all. Wallace Stevens has been called a poet of ideas, after all.
So then what gives with the title? Shmoop thinks "The Snow Man" is a big honkin' metaphor for the mind at its best, its purest. The snow man, of course, has a mind of winter. And that means he's able to shirk all his emotional baggage and regard winter for what it really is: winter. It's not bitterly cold, or miserably snowing. The snow man is the listener, the one who can know the "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
Which raises a question: are we supposed to want to be like the snow man? Do we want to drop all our baggage and see reality as, well, nothing at all? Or do we want to hang on to our feelings and project them onto the things that we see?
And do we even have a choice?
Elementary, our dear Shmoopers. This one's set in the winter.
Ah, but not so fast. Sure, there are spruces and frost and boughs and pine trees and snow and January. But the wintriness of the imagery of this poem is really not at all what this poem is about. Winter is more an occasion than a setting, giving the speaker the opportunity to talk about what's really on his mind (of winter).
Much as with the "Speaker," the setting here takes a back seat to the philosophy being discussed. It's not so much winter that's important, but how we perceive it. If we're being our usual selves, we see it as bitterly cold and miserable. But if we're the snow man, we can see it for what it truly is, which is nothing at all.
We're going to go out on a limb here and say something you'll probably never hear Shmoop say again: the speaker doesn't matter much here. K, thanks, bye!
Oh, we should probably explain ourselves. It's not that the speaker doesn't matter at all, it's just that in a Wallace Stevens poem, the speaker—whoever he or she is—will always always always take a backseat to the ideas in play.
You can think of the speaker as a detached, omniscient narrator of sorts. He's not stuck in any particular person's brain, so he uses the word "one" to describe, well, anyone. And that's because he's talking about everyone.
Imagine if this poem said "I must have a mind of winter" or "She must have a mind of winter." And instead of "For the listener, who listens in the snow," it said, "For Shirley, who listens in the snow." That's quite a different poem, and quite a less effective one if we may say so ourselves (and we always do). Part of what makes this poem so successful is that we don't have to worry about the who—just the what. And the what's difficult enough to keep us occupied for days.
Sure, it's got plain old words and plain old grammar. But the ideas here are so complicated, we thought we'd warn you that this is no easy climb. Remember, things aren't always what they seem.
Wallace Stevens really dug certain words. He liked "purple" and "parasol," but nothing compares to the way that he loved the word "behold." Stevens drops the word twice in the poem and gives the word some special weight, and it pops up in a ton of his other stuff, too.
You would be more likely to find "behold" in the Bible than in a twentieth-century, Modernist poem, and Stevens is using this to his advantage. "Behold" suggests the witnessing of miracles, amazing things, awesome scenes. You might behold God's creations and revelations, but you certainly don't behold the bologna and cheese sandwich you made for lunch. But hey, that all depends on your perspective (or so Stevens might say).
Prepare yourselves, Shmoopers, for the revelation of the century: this poem is all one sentence. Get your gasps out now, before we dive into the nitty gritty.
Now, you might be thinking, what does a rambling sentence have to do with poetic form? A lot—we promise. In fact, more so than all those three-line stanzas, the single sentence of "The Snow Man" is what gives this poem shape and meaning.
How so? Well, the poem starts off simple:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
A mind of winter is necessary to see some wintry stuff. We're good. But then! Stevens tosses an "and" our way:
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; […]
Okay, so in addition to needing a mind of winter, we need to have been cold a long time in order to see some other wintry stuff.
Except, that's not all. Stevens tosses another "and" our way:
[…] and not think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
Those two "ands" that keep this sentence going force you to reconsider everything that has come before in light of the new lines you've just read. Now we know that you don't just need a mind of winter to see wintry things; you need a mind of winter to see wintry things and not think wintry (read: depressing) thoughts. It's like you're reading in circles, constantly starting and restarting, rehashing old ideas in new ways.
And yet, there's more. Stevens' next major clause goes,
Which is the sound of the land
Once again, we're gaining new information that makes us reconsider the rest of the sentence in a new light. Stevens keeps doing it over and over again, with
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
We mean, that sentence just keeps growing and growing and growing, until we're left with a poem that means something along the lines of,
You have to have a mind of winter in order to avoid projecting your feelings and perspective onto what you're seeing and see the world for what it really is, which is nothing outside your own perception of it.
Except, you know, Stevens was a bit more eloquent.
See, thanks to ol' Wally's liberal use of enjambment, with each new clause—each new "and" or "which" or "for" or "who"—we can't help but build an idea. For Stevens, that's exactly what a poem should do: build an idea. The sentence itself takes us from a single, emotional perspective on winter (and its misery), and arrives at sheer nothingness, all with the help of a few conjunctions here, a few semi-colons there. By the end of it, we're left with one thing, and one thing only—the notion that perception is not always reality.
The snow man? What snow man? Outside the title, we don't see any cold, spherical, carrot-nosed plump dudes around. Which means the snow man must be a metaphor, or—dare we say—symbol of something. But what? Is he the listener at the end of the poem? The mind of winter at the beginning? Let's dig in and find out.
We hate to break it to you, but "The Snow Man" has, well, nothing to do with winter. Sure, it's chock full of wintry imagery. But winter here is more just a convenient way to talk about the wonders of the mind.
This poem is way too cold to get busy.