Wallace Stevens’ Winter


With winter only a few weeks away, I started thinking of modern poet Wallace Stevens after reading Benjamin Glass’s excellent commentary on the 32 Poems blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps I read Stevens this time of year because his poems reflect the only type of Christmas atmosphere I can endure: mostly solemn, mostly isolated, and if there is to be cheer, it must be diluted thoroughly into the first two attributes (The hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” encapsulates this dynamic). On Christmas Eves the midnight ritual at the Episcopalian church of my childhood was somber, liturgical, and ornate. During the candlelit mass, I groggily sang from the hymnal while the robed clergy led the congregation. Despite experiencing the heights of anticipation (Christmas morning was just hours away), it was all incredibly peaceful, too. And dark. I think many of Stevens’ poems reflect this solemnity and peace, “The Snow Man,” a particular holiday favorite, especially.

“The Snow Man” is probably my favorite Stevens’ poem (although it may be a tie between it and “A Postcard from the Volcano”). It describes the holiday season’s quiet reflection, idealized snow-covered pine trees, and the relationship between absence and presence that we work to reconcile during a season rife with memories. The full text is here, but I wanted to note a few of my favorite sections:

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…

Stevens’ “mind of winter” is the state the speaker enters when he has truly become one with a place, when he realizes that the circumstances that surround him – in this case, the chill and lonely howl of the wind – mean him no harm. These sounds and sights are mirrored in the speaker; he realizes that he also contains those dark, lonely places:

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…

Standing alone in the cold, the speaker experiences what we feel listening to the blues when we’re sad: there is someone, or something, feeling the same thing. The chilly, bleak scene resonates for the speaker, becoming a source of comfort.

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