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Which statement best describes how Stevens employs the poetic device of pathetic...

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cknutson4 | Honors

Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:15 AM via web

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Which statement best describes how Stevens employs the poetic device of pathetic fallacy in "The Snow Man?"

a. The poet incorrectly refers to the "listener," a character from a famous poem.

b. The poet describes a winter world of loneliness and misery that is not acknowledged by the things in nature, only by humans.

c. The poet describes a winter scene throughout the first four stanzas of the poem, only to explain in the last stanza that there is nothing there.

d. The poet argues that "One must have a mind of winter," but does not explain this opinion elsewhere in the poem.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:12 PM (Answer #1)

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A "pathetic fallacy" is a category of personification that endows nature with human qualities, attributes and characteristics. The pathetic fallacy occurs in line one when Stevens attributes a "mind," which is a human attribute and characteristic, to "winter" thus personifying through pathetic fallacy "winter": "One must have a mind of winter."

Now that the pathetic fallacy is isolated, it is necessary to say that a misreading of the poem through misunderstanding of grammatical construction leads to the idea that Stevens "does not explain this opinion elsewhere in the poem."

A recasting of the briefest essence of the poem in prose, with some paraphrasing, shows that the poem is one grammatical expression and that "One must have a mind of winter" is drawn to a logical conclusion in an "in order for" adverbial clause in "For a listener, who listens in the snow":

  • One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost and the boughs and to behold the spruces rough in the distant glitter of the January sun; and not to think of any misery echoing in the sound of a few leaves, which is the sound of the land that is blowing for the listener, who listens in the snow, and, who being nothing in himself, beholds the nothing that is not there (the death of winter's cold) and beholds the nothing that is there (his inner condition).

In other words, one must have a mind of winter (a mind frozen and cold and dead) to behold the signs of winter and not think of misery echoing through the wind that blows for the listener who beholds the nothing that is in nature's frozen dead state and the nothing that is within himself.

Along with the pathetic fallacy introduced in the first line, the poem does describe a winter world that echoes misery but it is the poetic persona listener who hears the misery, not the "mind of winter." While the winter world and the listener both are described as nothingness, it again is the listener (the poetic persona) who acknowledges it, not nature. The pathetic fallacy is restricted to giving Winter the attribute and characteristic of "mind." The meaning of the poem is that the poetic persona listener envies the mind of winter wishing he might have the same mind so as to be as unnoticing of his nothingness as winter is of its own nothingness.

In terms of your assignment, the first best choice might be (D) even though the presupposition of an incomplete "opinion" ("does not explain this opinion elsewhere in the poem") is incorrect and misleading. Depending upon your teacher's understanding of pathetic fallacy, (B) might be the sought after answer since the poem might be said to describe a "world of loneliness and misery" that the poetic persona recognizes (no one else is included in the poet's musings; "humans" are not included) and that nature is quietly oblivious of because of its control by the "mind of winter" (winter here has the mind, nature does not have the mind; nature is not personified, only winter is personified through pathetic fallacy).

Thus depending upon your teacher's objectives, you might choose (B) or (D).

PATHETIC FALLACY background

Ruskin coined the term pathetic fallacy to attack the sentimentality that was common to the poetry of the late 18th century ... Ruskin’s original definition is “emotional falseness” or the falseness that occurs to one’s perceptions when influenced by violent or heightened emotion. ... His introduction of the problem of false appearances reveals ... poetic falsehood or distortion ... which he calls the pathetic fallacy [thus the "fallacy" is the fallacy of hyper-emotional perception]. (Victorian Web and Wikipedia)

pathetic fallacy definition:

poetic practice of attributing human emotion or responses to nature, inanimate objects, or animals. The practice is a form of personification that is as old as poetry, in which it has always been common to find smiling or dancing flowers, angry or cruel winds, brooding mountains, moping owls, or happy larks. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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