Study Guide

The Snow Man

The Snow Man Summary

The speaker rambles a bit about how it takes a wintry mindset to look at all the cold, blustery snowy stuff around you and not think it's all ten kinds of miserable. And if you do have the mind of winter, you realize you're nothing, and you can see that pretty much everything else is nothing, too. Natch.

  • Stanzas 1-2

    Line 1

    One must have a mind of winter

    • We don't know who the speaker is or what it means to "have a mind of winter" or why somebody "must" have it. Frankly, it doesn't even sound all that fun.
    • But we soldier on anyways. After reading one line, our best guess is that one has "a mind of winter" like someone has girls or boys on the brain. The wintriness invades every thought that the mind makes. It has a wintry disposition.
    • All we know so far is that such a mind is necessary for… something. We'll have to keep reading to find out what.

    Lines 2-3

    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    • Apparently, once someone has a "mind of winter," they can see the winter scene: frost, boughs (a.k.a. tree branches), snow, etc.
    • But wait a second. You don't need any special winter brain to see those things. Shmoop likes to think we have a mind of summer, but we've seen our fair share of snow and frost. 
    • So what gives? Maybe the key is in that word, "regard." If regarding something means seeing it in a specific way, looking at it closely, with careful attention, well then we imagine a mind of winter might come in handy.

    Lines 4-5

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

    • Lines 4-5 are set up a whole lot like lines 1-3. The gist here is that you have to have been cold a long time (which sounds a bit like having a mind of winter if you ask Shmoop) to see frosty junipers. 
    • So being really, really cold makes us a better seer of nature in wintertime? Sounds dubious. But again, maybe there's something to be said about the diction here. 
    • After all, behold doesn't just mean see. When you behold something, you see something impressive, awe-inspiring, even miraculous. As in, "Behold! A tap-dancing lobster!"
    • So when you behold, you're seeing like nobody's business.
    • We're getting the sense that when you have a mind of winter, and you've been cold for a long time, it let's you see all that snowy, slushy mush around you in a new and exciting way. You see things once more! with feeling!
  • Stanzas 3-4

    Lines 6-9

    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,

    • We don't know about you, but Shmoop's running out of breath. Notice how we haven't come across a period yet? Spoiler alert: don't get your hopes up for one anytime soon. 
    • Instead, we get some more descriptions of how great winter is: spruces (a type of evergreen tree) and snow glittering in the sunlight, and then we have to settle for a semicolon.
    • What does that semicolon do? Well it tells us that what comes after is related to all the lines that have come before. So lines 7, 8, and beyond, are actually finishing the idea that was begun all the way back in line 1. 
    • So the gist here is, you have to have a mind of winter, and have been cold a long time, to look at all these beautiful wintry things, and "not think of any misery in the sound of the wind." Or in the sound of leaves, either, for that matter.
    • That means if you've got a mind of summer, if you're from, say Florida or something, you'll probably hear the wind and think, my goodness, what a bummer. 
    • But if you're in the right mindset, you won't project your feelings onto your surroundings in this way. We're thinking that's a good thing according to our speaker. 
    • See, you might start to think that if you are miserable and cold, that the cold wind is wailing, too. But it's not all about you, the speaker seems to say. Maybe the wind and leaves are jubilant, chock full of joy, dancing a jig. You just don't know. You're trapped in your own mind—you don't know winter's.

    Lines 10-12

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    • That "sound of a few leaves"? That's also the sound of the land, with all that wind blowing over it. Hey, where'd all the junipers and spruces go? Things have taken a turn for the desolate here.
    • But why? A minute ago, there were snowy trees and lovely winter scenes. Only now that we're in our winter-less head, things seem, well, awful. 
    • Hey, maybe that's the point. Stevens seems to be hinting at the importance of perspective here. Winter looks quite different to those with summer on the brain. In fact, it looks downright bleak.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 13-15

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    • Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the last stanza, where everything comes together and it all makes perfect sense. 
    • Er… maybe not. In fact, this stanza's probably got more than a few of you scratching your heads. 
    • So let's unpack it, shall we? 
    • The wind and the leaves have been blowing over the bare landscape for the listener, who may or may not have a mind of winter. 
    • Then, the listener, who is nothing, beholds nothing. 
    • Minds blown? No? Okay, maybe we need to unpack things even more. 
    • What Stevens is after here is something along the lines of perspectivism. That's the philosophical idea that everything is viewed from a certain perspective.
    • There can be no understanding a pure, true reality outside of our own interpretation of it, which, according to Stevens, is colored by our imagination. 
    • In other words, try as we might to have a mind of winter, we're stuck with our mind of Shmoop (which is awesome, so we're not complaining). We can't help but project our own orders and ideas on what we see. And in this case, the listener is projecting misery onto the wintery scene around him. 
    • But in reality, that listener—the snow man—isn't, well, anything in particular. He's nothing. And so is the landscape... and the winter... and everything for that matter. 
    • See, the snow man knows what's up. He, like Stevens, knows that nothing exists in and of itself outside of our perception of it. That's why he's able to behold "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." 
    • Let's sum up. We started things off with a viewer bringing his emotional baggage to the scene—he looked at the winter and saw that it was miserable. 
    • But then, things shifted to a bare and empty scene. Why? Well, as Stevens himself once wrote, "The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us" (source, 169). So in a sense, all those fancy trees with frost on the boughs were really just a figment of our imagination, something we brought to the empty scene. 
    • Now that we've taken our perspective away, there's nothing. And the snow man, the listener, understands that. In a way, he does have a mind of winter. Or at least, he has a mind that's able to see winter for what it really is, which is nothing at all. 
    • Yep, the only thing that makes winter, well, winter is our perception of it. How's that for the power of sight? 
    • And it only took ol' Wallace one long sentence, spanning five stanzas to get there. Sheesh.