“When does a building stop being a product of the reason and become a product of the imagination?” Stevens asked in his 1948 essay “Imagination as Value”. One could ask the same question about a snow man, that anthropomorphized representation of winter that somehow transcends its elementary construction principles to live on as a rather poignant symbol of our own sense of what it is to be alive. To look at one only as an engineering project misses the point, as any child will tell you. Yet focusing on such construction details (the size of the coal, the type of hat, the placement of the carrot) is the only practical thing to do, as any scientist will tell you. For how each of us respond to the particulars of the external world through the prism of our own imaginative facilities creates a unique reality that is not shareable. In other words, to acknowledge the importance of imagination, one has to also acknowledge its isolation. That is the theme of “The Snow Man,” a haunting and austere one-sentence poem from 1921 that has transfixed generations of readers for its unwillingness to translate the feeling its evokes into easy meaning. Here’s the poem:
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.
Notice there are two distinct figures depicted here. The watcher, which one can only assume is some imagined representation of an actual snow man, beholds everything with that cold mind of winter. He is so aligned with the elements he can actually understand what they are, without resort to the imaginative recreation we humans must engage in to comprehend things. The second figure, identified as the “listener,” is implicitly human, the one who associates the sound of winter wind with “misery”, yet who is specifically described as “nothing.” Being nothing, he can only appreciate nothing, much as the “mind of winter,” being of the cold, can only appreciate cold.
These two equivalent figures cohabitate “the same bare place,” yet exist in complete isolation from one another. We feel this as readers before we know it, largely because we are unaware of how completely the poet has stripped the real—or rather the collective illusion of the real—away from this imaginative construction.
The first line drops us into a state that is not literally possible: “One must have a mind of winter.” Winter, as we understand it, does not actually have a mind, of course. We do, or think we do, however, when we “regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees” in the fantastical manner of being “crusted”, “shagged” [in this sense, piled coarsely] and “rough in the distant glitter // Of the January sun.” By exaggerating what we see, we feel we have a more visceral, shared sense of what winter really is. The use of the verbs “regard” and “behold” gives away that this depiction of winter is not merely seen, but created, in thought and empathy, out of what is seen.
As Stevens wrote in “Imagination as Value”, “it is in the nature of the imagination itself that we should be quick to accept it as the only clue to reality.” But it is important for Stevens to remind us that this scene is not real. We do not have the mind of winter, nor have we “been cold a long time,” so we can’t say our experience is of reality.
This sense of reality denying us is accentuated in the next stanza, when after the visuals the sounds begin, and the normal human feelings the winter wind evokes are foreclosed to us: “One must have the mind of winter … not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.”
To quote Stevens from “Imagination as Value” again: "'It is art,' said Henry James, 'which makes life, makes interest, makes importance. . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.' The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us." The next stanza hints at just how desolate such a world would be: “the sound of the land / Full of the same wind /That is blowing in the same bare place.” Stevens has suddenly stripped everything down to its barest bones, almost to nothing.
Then, and only then, does the listener emerge, as a contrast to the imagined “mind of winter” / snow man. This bare wind blows for him, without the possibility of imaginative recreation. Because it is real, it is nothing, and because it is nothing, he is nothing. So he beholds “nothing that is not there.” In other words, everything that imagination uses to create a picture of reality is all still included: the cold, the snow, the trees, the wind, etc. But what is actually beheld is “the nothing that is.” If imagination is taken out of the equation – or more precisely, before imagination is taken out of the equation – nothing is left to see. All that is of value would have been created by the imagining mind. (Here it might be productive to note that this is the point where all the major spiritual traditions on the planet would remind us that “all appearance is illusion, created by the mind.”) Or, as Stevens says in “Imagination as Value”, “the imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.”
Still, this effort to strip away all the illusions in an already stripped-away scene does not resolve to a total nullity: it’s an act of imagination to perceive there is nothing. What’s negated is the reader, who cannot know of what this nothing consists, or who perceives it. The cold, barren feeling is not lack of imagination (the poem is, after all, full of imagination), but lack of human connection. The snow man is singular, and, try as we might, we can’t get inside his head to imagine what the world looks like to him. Yet imagination is our original and primary relationship to the world. If, as Stevens points out in “Imagination as Value”, “we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them … reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination,” then reality is singular. There are not six words for snow, but as many as there are snowflakes. The paradox of being an unapologetic individual in a world that elides individual autonomy is Stevens’ “great subject”, one he returns to again and again, never quite accepting that what is life and reality to him can never be so to anyone else.