Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For Stevens, the imagination is not merely a way of creating but also a way of knowing, and “The Snow Man” is a self-consciously paradoxical attempt to imagine the absence of imagination by trying to capture in words a reality that is in essence wordless and by trying to put into human terms a nature that is in essence inhuman. It is significant that the speaker refers to “a mind of winter,” for the one thing he cannot deliver is winter in itself. However much he tries to avoid the pitfalls of personification and anthropomorphism, however much he tries “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” he cannot help but posit some connection between the poverty that resides within a mind of winter and the poverty that resides within a landscape of winter. Insofar as “the listener” lives in the prison house of language and is thereby shaped and determined by the preconceptions and values of a given vocabulary, he cannot in reality become nothing himself and cannot behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” He and his audience are relegated to imagining themselves occupying an absolute vantage point from which they are able to see things as they are and thus to see “Nothing that is not there.” Nevertheless, the minute they posit “the nothing that is” and impose philosophical meaning on it (or draw meaning from it), they have entered a realm of imaginative abstraction from which there is no escape. The limits of their language are the limits of their world. Language always adds something that is not there to the nothing that is, and the poem itself is an eloquent demonstration of this insurmountable paradox.

It is no exaggeration to...

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