The Poem

“The Snow Man” is a short fifteen-line poem divided into five tercets. The title conjures up an image of a human artifact. The resemblance between a real human figure and a snowman, however, is hardly exact, for a high degree of conventional stylization goes into the making of a snowman—differently sized balls for head, torso, and limbs, coals for eyes, carrot for nose, and so on. Nevertheless, the snowman is a strategically apt image, for Stevens’s poem deals with the attempt of the speaker to resist succumbing to the temptation to anthropomorphize or to personify—that is, to impose human form on nature or to impute human qualities to inanimate things or forces. As the opening line indicates, “One must have a mind of winter” to approach a frigid January landscape on its own terms, to see it as it really is, and thus to keep the snow and the man separate, as Stevens’s deliberate separation of the two words in his title suggests.

In spite of this desire for separation, the snow and the man cannot really be kept apart, for any attempt to approach winter on its own inhuman terms is foredoomed to failure insofar as one must use as one’s medium the human terms of a shared cultural vocabulary. A scene of winter, verbally rendered, is necessarily an approximation, for word-using animals, by definition, have no nonlinguistic or nonsymbolic access to the structure of the real and thus can only more or less encompass things as they are. The speaker is acutely aware of how difficult it is “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves.” He concedes that one must “have been cold a long time” to avoid humanizing the scene by personifying it, to avoid seeing it as a reflection of misery or some other negative human feeling. To behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” one must be nothing oneself. Yet as Stevens reflects in his poem “The Plain Sense of Things” (1952), “the absence of imagination [has]/ Itself to be imagined.” The inhuman reality of wordless nature can only be approached through the word-soaked world of human imagination. The poem itself is an enactment of this paradox.

Forms and Devices

To portray the relationship between the mind of winter and the landscape of winter, Stevens uses predominantly visual images: “the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow,” “the junipers shagged with ice,” and “The spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun.” For Stevens, the seasons are analogues not only for the cycle of human life but also for the cyclical nature of the human imagination. Winter is as close as one comes to an unadulterated reality purged clean of humanizing additions such as personification and anthropomorphism, as close as one comes to an inhuman landscape in which one can find no human meaning. Spring is an analogue for the mind’s finding what will suffice by giving reality some measure of human shape. Summer is an analogue for the time of physical paradise, an imagined world wholly bearable and wholly hospitable to human beings. Fall, finally, is an analogue for the overripeness that leads to rottenness and that initiates the slow decay into winter.

It is fitting, therefore, that this poem about the mind of winter visually abounds in wintry images and auditorially attunes itself to “the sound of the wind/That is blowing in the same bare place/ For the listener.” The poem itself for the most part is also a bare place in that the speaker studiously avoids thinking of “any misery in the sound of the wind” by avoiding anthropomorphic figures of speech. The forms and devices that are not there make possible the beholding of “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The imagination, Stevens maintains, adds nothing to the world except itself. Save for the paradox inscribed in the final two lines, the poem is virtually devoid of figurative language. Though words such as “crusted,” “shagged,” and their cognates have connotative value, their evocative function is strictly subservient to their descriptive function.


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