“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.