07 December 2005

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

(A friend asked for my view of this poem. I'm no Helen Vendler, but I'll give it a shot.)

Robert Pack notes that Stevens "dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully." This would be a perfect analysis but for that last phrase--I think it's quite the opposite. Once divested of mind, of the intrusions of personality, the scene can finally "exist fully."

He goes on to explain,
We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification.
I'd change that last word to "unification." Deep understanding requires more than mere identification. It isn't empathy for the snow man that occurs (or for winter, emptiness, deprivation, loss), but a process of becoming. A transformation into what is initially perceived erases distinctions between "cold" and "warm," "bare" and "full." This lack of differentiation produces "nothingness"--or, at least, its illusion ("the nothing that is").

On a purely subjective note, the poems speaks to me of the nature of grief and the resignation that follows loss. It is only with time that things become bearable--not because grief fades, but because the self conforms to it until perception is subsumed completely. I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson's lines,
After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--
It isn't a negative process, it simply is.

UPDATE: Anne offers some lovely thoughts re. Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf on the consolation found in turning to the Greeks: "What Penelope, Antigone, Electra, and Clytemnestra all show is the power of inconsolability, the fidelity and courage of a mourning that never ends."

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