Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
Reading "The Snow Man": Stevens's Structures of Undecidability
Ross Leckie (Ph.D., U of Toronto) is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the author of two books of poetry, A Slow Light and The Profession of Roses. His essays have recently appeared in Essays in Literature, Studies in Short Fiction, Verse, and University of Toronto Quarterly.
In poems such as Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," metaphor and syntax cannot be understood as producing mutually supportive structures of meaning, and must be read as working against each other. I propose to articulate two alternate readings of "The Snow Man," investigating the ways in which they are rooted in conflicting understandings of the poem's structures of metaphor and syntax. I will then relate these conflicts first to the epistemological theories of rhetoric of Emerson's transcendentalism and Pound's imagism, and then to theories of undecidability presented by Todorov, Riffaterre, and de Man.
Most readings of "The Snow Man" focus upon the metaphorical topography of the winter landscape that appears to govern the production of the poem's meaning (Longenbach 23; Fisher 38-39; Carroll 35; Bové 189-92; Bloom 63; Perlis 91-92). This winter landscape is varyingly interpreted across a spectrum of meanings that range from bleak representation of an existential condition to a more affirmative, Zen-like emptying of self in appreciation of minimalist beauty. Some of these readings, like Paul Bové's in Destructive Poetics, emphasize the nihilism of the scene, and link it with Derridean notions of absence behind the rhetorical figure (189-92). Others, like Harold Bloom's in The Poems of Our Climate, assert that the listener reduced to nothing "remains human," because the sparse figuration in the poem is still figuration, rather than bareness (63).
The poem's complex syntax, however, governed by the fact that the poem is a single sentence, articulates a logical argument that rejects the emotional tone of winter's nothingness in favor of a humanist acceptance of the appropriate pathos—that if one doesn't think of misery in confronting this scene, then one must have a mind of winter. Though no readers that I am aware of have carefully parsed the logic inherent in the poem's syntax, a variety of critics argue that the purpose of the poem is the indication of the imagination's ability to limit and control the experience of nothing (Vendler 48-49; Regueiro 147-48; Doggett 129-30).
What I will call the humanist reading suggests that the argument of the poem's syntax can be paraphrased as: "If one were to regard the frost and the junipers shagged with ice and not think of misery, then one must have been cold a long time and have a mind of winter." The moral implication of this argument is that to have a mind of winter is inhuman, for one ought to at least think upon human misery in confronting such an effacement of self in the winter landscape. The control of the argument dilutes the vision of nothingness with which the poem concludes, for all of the powerful rhetoric suggesting a listener who, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is, is logically and syntactically subordinate to the moral argument.
To grasp the force of this logic is difficult, for each stanza of the poem advances and repeals meanings which linger in the reader's mind and have associative power with the metaphorical topography so alluringly presented by Stevens. Indeed, the first stanza of "The Snow Man" appears to present an argument opposite to that of the humanist reading.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
These lines appear exhortatory, demanding that one should have a mind of winter when regarding the frost and the boughs so that one can see them clearly and as they are.
The second stanza, however, repeals the possibility of reading the first stanza as a call to a wintry realism. In a sort of syntactical pun, "have" shifts from present indicative to past auxiliary.
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruce rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun;
The past perfect tense removes the exhortation to confront harsh reality, because one cannot exhort someone to "have been cold." The "must" of the first line of the poem is not an imperative or an exhortation, then, but a conditional. The "One must have a mind of winter and have been cold a long time" is the plain description of a result, the likely occurrence of standing out in the snow.
The third stanza, of course, completes the argument.
and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves
The logic is finally, "If one regards the frost and does not think of misery, then one must have a mind of winter." This argument is not commonly read in this poem, because, as readers of metaphor, critics naturally turn to the hypothermic rhetoric that is so powerful in the subordinate concluding stanzas. Michael Riffaterre suggests that one needs to read a poem both horizontally and vertically, as it were, following both the horizontal progress of the syntax and the vertical association of the images ("Interpretation" 123). Most readers of "The Snow Man" tend to read it vertically, associating the figure "mind of winter" and the idea of "misery" with the insistent nothingness with which the poem concludes.
This associative method of reading metaphor across or against the poem's syntax forms the basis of what I provisionally call minimalist readings of the types like Bové's or Bloom's. These readings must accept what Riffaterre calls an ungrammaticality, a phrasing that cannot be explained by context, in the "have been cold," presumably as Stevens's way of giving the ethereal observer a concrete location. The strength of minimalist readings, however, is that they also solve an ungrammaticality, that of the sudden shift at the poem's mid-point from the conditional to the indicative mood. The compelling rhetoric of the concluding stanzas is rooted in the present active voice that insists on the existence of a perceiver and a perceived scene. When I teach this poem, I often note how differently we would understand it if we enforced the conditional mood through the final qualifying illustrations: "which would be the sound of the land . . . for the listener, who would listen in the snow, and, nothing himself, would behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
The poem clearly does divide at the mid-point in both tone and idea, and this is marked not only by the shift to indicative mood, but by the poem's developing sound pattern and by the change from the apodictic flow of the argument to the complex series of appositives. The use of words like "listens," "beholds," and the repetitions of "is" direct our attention to a landscape which seems to have its own imagistic reality. The discreet quality of the images is reinforced by the appositives, which tend to remove the final two stanzas further and further from their controlling syntactical context. The independence of the conclusion is structured around the repetitions of sound in the soft "s's," "w's," "l's," and "n's," and the repeated words "sound," "wind," "same," and "nothing." Each of these rhetorical devices—the shift from conditional to indicative mood, the use of appositional phrases and clauses, and the repetitive sound pattern—challenges the conditional nature of the preceding argument and reinstates the suggestive power of an existential regard.
"The Snow Man," then, presents a controlling topographical image of winter, which functions as a metaphor for a certain kind of relation between a perceiving mind and a perceived winter landscape. The emphasis in the poem is on the perceptual moment and the ways in which perceiver and perceived condition each other. The perceiver is conditioned in the perceptual act by the landscape perceived—the mind is shaped to the conditions of winter and becomes cold. Alternatively, the landscape itself is sanctioned by the act of the mind. The scene is not simply "observed," but is articulated by the power implied in "regard" and "beholds." This function of image and metaphor to focus the perceptual moment, however, is counterposed to the meaning controlled by the poem's syntax, which argues a degree of rational detachment from the experiential nexus of the image.
I would like to argue that Stevens has deliberately structured the conflicting rhetorical conditions that establish the various alternative readings of the poem. The manner in which Stevens uses syntax and logic against image and metaphor indicates the methods by which he poses alternate and contingent imaginings of landscapes that become a rhetoric of possible realities. It is not a question for Stevens of choosing between a humanist's abhorrence of a vacuum and a minimalist's figuration of nothingness. "The Snow Man" suggests rather the way in which opposing modes of thought participate in the formulation of the boundaries of meaning within the poem's epistemological organization.
If we return to the question of metaphorical practice, we can ask what was at stake for Stevens in such a complex rhetorical structure. At stake, clearly, was Stevens's ambivalence toward an epistemological theory of rhetoric coming to him in different forms from Emerson's idealism and Pound's imagism. If we accept A. Walton Litz's depiction of a younger Stevens struggling in the years 1913-16 with the discoveries of imagism as it was articulated by Pound and others in the pages of Poetry, then we can observe Stevens's parallel experimentation, which revels in the resources of metaphor while doubting its metaphysical underpinnings (21-42).
Pound's definitions of his aesthetic begin in 1913 with "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," where he indicates that "an 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (200). It is the compression of the image which delivers "that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art" (200-01). In his essay of the following year on "vorticism," Pound describes the composition of "In a Station of the Metro" as "a form of superposition, that is to say it is one idea set on top of another" (467). The technique superimposes two perceptions from the world, but the effect, Pound argues, is a conjunction of inner and outer experience. After seeing the string of beautiful faces in the Paris metro, he wanted to find words "as lovely as that sudden emotion" (465). The process is a form of translation, through the linguistic moment of the poem, from the perceptual ideas contained in the images to the emotional transport of the aesthetic experience. As Pound suggests: "In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective" (467).
Stevens would have found the epistemology of imagism consistent with his concern for an aesthetic of the American landscape constructed, in part, upon the transcendentalism of Emerson. Emerson's clarion cry in "The Poet" for a poetry peculiarly American is founded on the idea that the American landscape demands a new poetics. Emerson argues: "Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres" (22). The epistemology of this new American poetics is made explicit in the "Language" section of Emerson's first essay entitled "Nature," and not surprisingly the rhetorical trope of metaphor becomes the mechanism that holds "Nature" and "Spirit" together. Emerson's belief that words are signs of natural facts and that nature, in turn, is a symbol of spirit leads to his conclusion that language is to reveal "inward creation" through the "use of the outer creation" (17). Rhetoric, for Emerson, is only the specific linguistic case of the larger rhetorical purpose: "The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (21).
In his early poetry, Stevens shares with Emerson a wish to uncover an unmeasured aesthetic appropriate to the brittle language of the American landscape, as evidenced in such poems as "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Earthy Anecdote," "Anecdote of the Jar," "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage," and so on. Emerson makes the specific point that the harsher season of winter contributes equally to the beauty of nature witnessed. In "Nature" he states: "I please myself with observing the graces of winter scenery, and I believe that we are as much touched by it as by the genial influences of summer" (14). Indeed, Emerson's winter poem "The Snow-Storm" may be an antecedent to Stevens's "The Snow Man" (42-43). In that poem, Emerson pictures a "privacy" of bourgeois comfort from which the effacement of order—"nought cares he / For number or proportion"—may be enjoyed as a "frolic architecture."
all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
The domestic tranquility which harmonizes the chaotic snow flurries with the appreciation of idealized beauty in Emerson's poem is absent in "The Snow Man." Stevens's poem emphasizes not the divine order of such a wintry landscape, but rather the nothingness of which the scene is constructed. The differences in Emersonian and Stevensian readings of American landscape underscore Stevens's complicated critique of the epistemology of rhetoric implied by transcendental and imagist poetic practices. Stevens, I suggest, simultaneously inscribes both the power of metaphor to unify inner and outer experience, and the subversion of this power within a structure of undecidability.
As rhetoric, Stevens acknowledges the remarkable power of metaphor first to suggest a division of inner and outer experience and then to unify them within the structure of an image. As epistemology, Stevens suspects, metaphor cannot actually create identities between mind and world, and such apparent power remains a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Stevens's structures of alternate meanings in "The Snow Man," then, are not the congruent levels of meaning encompassed in a concept of ambiguity. They are rather conflicted and undecidable in a way that Tzvetan Todorov observes in the "discontinuity and incoherence" of Rimbaud's discourse. The indeterminacy is structured into the linguistic play of the text itself, which becomes an equation with an indefinite number of solutions (87).
Stevens's poem, however, is not about the endless play of an indefinite number of solutions. In general, readings of "The Snow Man" take two or three paths that are guided by the very way in which Stevens structures syntax against metaphor in the poem. Riffaterre suggests that Todorov discovers undecidability only through a mistaken desire to find a direct reference in the world for the difficult image ("Interpretation" 127). Discontinuities are resolved by a semiotic interpretant, a field of reference by which the undecidable image can be explained. For Riffaterre, undecidability is a process that leads to the stable meaning of an intertext, and Riffaterre believes this stability in reading has existed across a diversity of changing times and evolving cultures ("Hermeneutic Models" 145).
In "The Epistemology of Metaphor," Paul de Man questions this very assumption. By reading philosophy rhetorically, de Man discovers that the very arguments used to eliminate the turning of rhetoric from philosophical discourse are themselves infected with rhetorical figures. De Man concludes: "But, in each case, it turns out to be impossible to maintain a clear line of distinction between rhetoric, abstraction, symbol, and all other forms of language. In each case, the resulting undecidability is due to the asymmetry of the binary model that opposes the figural to the proper meaning of the figure" (26). De Man's critique of Riffaterre would surely proceed along the lines that the binary opposition of the figure to its proper meaning in the intertext will always be undermined by the rhetoric needed to articulate what that proper meaning is.
I do not propose to settle this debate on the stability of meaning, but rather to suggest that Stevens's "The Snow Man" enacts the very ways in which rhetoric does or does not control meaning in the interactions between a poem's structural elements. If argument, image, and metaphor remain structures of rhetoric without epistemological force, they are nonetheless as likely in their intimations of singular meaning as are the disruptive features of rhetoric in their proliferations. Stevens recognizes a bipolarity in metaphor in that it suggests simultaneously both an absence and a plenitude, and the capability of metaphor to evoke presence is as much a part of its production of meaning as its capability to suggest absence. It is both the unitive and disruptive possibilities of syntax and image that Stevens structures into "The Snow Man."
The epistemology of metaphor, or indeed of any rhetorical figure, is, I think, undecidable. Whether the complexities of syntax and rhetoric can finally be interpreted in commonly accepted readings as Riffaterre argues, or disseminate into multiple and arbitrary readings as de Man indicates, cannot be determined through a philosophy of metaphor, because it is in the very nature of metaphor and poetic syntax to contain both possibilities simultaneously. It is this contingency in rhetoric that Stevens weaves into so many of his poems and for which an analysis of "The Snow Man" can stand as exemplar. The structures of undecidability in "The Snow Man" are constructed by Stevens to problematize the very possibility of reading the poem's rhetoric toward a single, universalized epistemology.
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____. "Vorticism." Fortnightly Review ns 96 (Sept. 1914): 461-71.
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____. "Interpretation and Undecidability." Rimbaud. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 115-28.
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