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Regarding the poem "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens, can anyone please help me interpret the last stanza, the part marked in bold here?

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.

Is it correct to rephrase/paraphrase the last stanza of three lines along this way?

  • And he (the listener) beholds nothing,
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is?

Do those mean the same thing?

  • It's poetry. No one can definitively say what is meant. – Hot Licks Jan 11 at 23:09
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Wallace Stevens describes how an observer might respond to nature, something utterly different from the human experience, without pushing their own interpretation upon it.

For instance, the punchline in the third stanza, continuing off the first, is that one must have "a mind of winter" to observe what is literally in nature and "not to think / of any misery in the sound of the wind." Hearing misery in the wind would invoke a pathetic fallacy (Wikipedia), attributing the observer's own emotion to nature. It would violate the listener's desire (marked by the line break) not to think.

The trouble for the speaker is that humans cannot avoid metaphor (let alone thinking) entirely, so it's exceptionally difficult to describe nature without a human touch. So the last stanza uses wordplay with nothing to at least approach an outside-human description of nature:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Nothing appears three times in three meanings:

  1. Nothing himself - the listener after having negated his own ego, only listens and beholds, and only takes in.

  2. Nothing that is not there - the listener takes in nothing that is not there; that is to say, he may only take in what is there. So he invokes no pathetic fallacy - no misery in the wind.

  3. The nothing that is - the listener finds something else in nature. This is metaphorical, but unlike misery, it does not describe a person's feeling. Rather, the listener finds the absence of human mindfulness.

On this point, Anthony Channell Hilfer in " 'The Nothing that Is': Representations of Nature in American Writing" (Texas Studies in Literature and Language Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer 2012) describes the poem as an attempt to negate the human presence when observing nature:

So the joke of 'The Snow Man' is that, finally, one cannot get around the pathetic fallacy. Yet the poem does go in the direction of doing so, chilling out human presence to something at least approaching zero-degree reality, an empathy with Nature exhibited more as a profoundly felt absence than as a presence. It does this by explicitly repudiating pathos as a proper response; pathos would involve the error of beholding "something that is not there." But the nothing that is has an evident sublimity, especially in its reduction of the human onlooker. (p. 231)

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  • Thank you TaliesinMerlin, your explanation has helped me absorb this deeper! – Ellie Jan 11 at 10:13
  • Apologies to Hilfer, but he really doesn't seem to get Stevens at all. There's no "joke" there, and the subject of "The Snow Man" is not how to evade the pathetic fallacy. Rather, it is the destruction of the cliché, the stale idea, the pre-digested imagery of the past which leads to one hearing "misery in the sound of the wind.". – Robusto Jan 11 at 21:21
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Without getting too wrapped up in a literary analysis, which is not the purview of this site, I have to mention that Stevens was a poet whose entire subject was, in his words, "the poem of the act of the mind."

Note that it is the act of the mind that concerns him, not just the mind itself. It is a conscious construction that is not beholden to any other ideas that have gone before. There is no "heavy historical sail" (to quote him from another poem), no "holy hush of ancient sacrifice" (again), only ideas that are reduced to their essence by observation.

Within the poem itself, Stevens negates the cliché of hearing "misery in the sound of the wind"; he wants to clear his mind and be an observer who has fresh thoughts about snow and cold and juniper boughs "shagged with ice"—thoughts that get to the essence of things by unencumbering them from the detritus of prior imaginings. He wants to be nothing, to bring nothing, but simply to observe and, by observing, to create a new thing.

But to create the new one must destroy the old. In "Poetry Is a Destructive Force" he writes:

That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

Sound familiar? This is a constant theme in his work. Dissertations have been written about Stevens and his ideas about observation, destruction of old ideas about poetry and what to put in their place. As he says in "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself," it is "a new knowledge of reality." Read more of his works ("Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "Sunday Morning," and so on) to see this theme developed further.

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Well, it's poetry, and therefore art, and therefore defies being pinned down. But, I would paraphrase it (in a non-poetic way) as:

The listener, who listens in the snow, is himself nothing - he doesn't exist (in a poetic sense). While in this state of non-existence, he beholds (ie perceives) two kinds of "nothing":

1) the "nothing that is not there", which means he is looking or listening for something, and not finding it. This is the nothing which is an absence of something, like a silence when you expected to hear a noise.

2) "the nothing that is", meaning "the nothing that is there". This is the sense of "nothing" in a similar sense to the word "vacuum", meaning a kind of definable thing which happens to not be anything, like a silence which you might enjoy after a busy day for example - silence as an actual "thing".

This shouldn't be analysed too literally, and I don't think it would withstand a wholly logical interpretation, but that's my subjective take on it.

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  • Thank you Max! The poem is quoted in this book I'm reading, in which the author talks about "no-self" in a Buddhist way. So yours was actually a perfect interpretation for me to grasp why the author chose this poem. And also it helped me to distinguish the two kinds of "nothing". Thanks a lot!!! – Ellie Jan 7 at 11:34

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