Miss Woodhouse's Musings

…about life, the universe, and everything. Don't panic!

Nothing That Is Not There

on 31 March 2010

Warning: this post contains the musings of a university English major. Read at your own mental risk! :) –Miss Woodhouse

For the few of you out there who do not yet know about my feelings towards American Literature, I have some very strong ones: I don’t like American Literature. I’m currently taking an American Lit class only because I would LOVE to graduate sometime this century.

Nonetheless, I believe in giving everything your best effort as much as you can. So, let it come as a little shock when I say that reading the poetry this week was almost bearable. Almost.

I found myself somewhat taken with a poet I have not ever read, Wallace Stevens. In particular, I really enjoyed his poem entitled “The Snow Man.” I’ve reprinted it here for your reading pleasure:

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.

This last stanza really captured my attention. The poem, though nicely balanced and arranged, is somewhat bleak. The landscape described is blank, desolate, frozen, and harsh (did you notice how Stevens used the words “crusted”, “shagged”, and “rough” to hint at harshness without coming out and using the word?).

The speaker in the poem reveals how he is looking at the world- not only is it harsh, but he hears mournfulness and misery in the sound of the winter wind. For some reason, these thoughts displease him, and he yearns to think like a snowman. In his mind, the snowman can see things as they truly are without the bias of human presumptions. Everything leads up to that final line as the speaker declares that since the snowman is himself nothing he can see the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

It doesn’t seem to bother the speaker (as it bothers me) that in looking to the snowman for an unbiased view of the world, the speaker is effectively placing his own bias on what he imagines the snowman to see. In reality, the speaker can find nothing worthwhile in the world around him, and the snowman becomes merely a vehicle by which the speaker can justify and rationalize the perception of meaningless life.

Life may be nothing, but for the speaker, nothingness must actually exist. If nothingness is not real and tangible, then the speaker realizes that he is most likely missing out on something huge in life. This appears to scare the speaker, thus he chronicles his winter quest to justify (ironically) the¬†existence¬†and purpose of nothingness. He creates this blank landscape, finds a blank “mind”, and creates a situation where nothing actually exists. He thinks that this will make him happy, that if he can achieve this goal he will no longer hear mournful wind and see harsh landscapes. Everything becomes nothing, and nothing is everything. The only problem is that this world that the speaker creates is quite…well, depressing.

So, I’ve shared how I read and interpret this poem. Why don’t you all take a moment or two to jot down in the comments what you see in the poem? I promise to respond!

Thanks to this transcript of All Things Considered for affirming that my interpretation is not completely off the wall!

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2 responses to “Nothing That Is Not There

  1. Melody says:

    I don’t know too much about poetry, but I think that is beautifully written. You can feel so much cold in it, and it almost has a sense of comfort in the cold. The snowman has adapted to winter, and has a mind of winter.

    • I like your idea of adaptability; it’s something I hadn’t noticed in my reading. Yet, it’s very true- the speaker prizes the snowman because it fits in with the landscape; he thinks that by fitting in, the snowman understands. Thus, you can indeed read this as the speaker longing to change. He is feeling that he does not fit in with the landscape, thus he fears that he can not understand it (and therefore not really understand life). It’s a very convincing reading. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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