The necessary angel of earth in whose sight I see the earth again—The hopeful lesson of the snowman’s “mind of winter”

READINGS: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (RSV)
Snowman on Christ's Pieces

The Snowman (1921) by Wallace Stevens

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.

—o0o—

Snowman on Christ's Pieces
Robert Pack in “From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought” (New Brunswick, Rutgers UP, 1958)

In the remarkable poem “The Snow Man,” Stevens dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.
          [. . . .]
          We, with the “one” of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification. Then we see with the sharpest eye the images of winter: “pine-trees crusted with snow,” “junipers shagged with ice,” “spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun.” We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: “sound of the wind,” “sound of a few leaves,” “sound of the land,” “same wind,” “same bare place,” “For the listener, who listens in the snow.” The “one” with whom the reader has identified himself has now become “the listener, who listens in the snow”; he has become the snow man, and he knows winter with a mind of winter, knows it in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling. But at that point when he sees the winter scene reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind, but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees “nothing that is not there,” then the scene, devoid of its imaginative correspondences, has become “the nothing that is.”

—o0o—

ADDRESS
The necessary angel of earth in whose sight I see the earth again
—the hopeful lesson of the snowman’s “mind of winter”


A snowy evening outside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
It will come as no surprise that this week, despite the difficulties (and, alas, even death) people have experienced thanks to the recent snow its coming will also have brought much joy and fun and around the country as the thousands of snowmen made by by children and adults alike bear eloquent witness. But, as much as we enjoy their temporary coming into our lives, in the modern and warming twenty-first century UK, he (she or it?) is for the most part a here-today-gone-tomorrow entity which inevitably spends more time in our imagination than it does as an actual, present thing. Given its rarity it should come as no surprise that we almost never spend any time contemplating the lesson Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) realized the snowman could teach us about the human condition — about what it is to be a human being and not a snowman nor, indeed, any other thing. So today, with only the vestiges of the snow still lying about is, I thought it would be worthwhile taking the opportunity to consider this lesson with the help of the fine and insightful poet and critic Robert Pack (b.1929).

So, let’s begin with Pack’s observation that:

“We, with the ‘one’ of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring.”

A second snowman on Christ's Pieces
The scene around us is of “pine-trees crusted with snow,” “junipers shagged with ice,” “spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January [or for us this week the] sun of February and March” — and these things, although undoubtedly beautiful (especially when viewed through a wndow from the toasty warmth of a winter fireside or a modern centrally-heated room) — are, when encountered directly in the winter landscape, salutary reminders that out in the winter landscape our continued existence is threatened for we know, were we to stay here for more than a few hours, we would quickly develop hypothermia and die not long afterwards. It’s no wonder that in these conditions, under cold and seemingly never-ending grey, overcast skies, even the most optimistic of us, at times, cannot but begin to think thoughts tinged with misery.

But this experience is not only a visual and temperature related one because, as we stand there shivering in the cold wind, we become aware, too, of the sounds of winter. Again as Pack observes:

We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: “sound of the wind,” “sound of a few leaves,” “sound of the land,” “same wind,” “same bare place,” “For the listener, who listens in the snow.”

Brrr!

A third snowman on Christ's Pieces
Now let’s concentrate for a moment on the line “For the listener, who listens in the snow.” To be a genuine listener in the snow, that is actually to hear these cold sibilants — and, by extension, to be a seer who can actually see pine-trees, junipers, spruces covered with ice and snow — one must be a being with a mind — one must be what we call (whatever this means) ‘a centre of consciousness’. When you-as-you are ‘the listener, who listens in the snow’, you see, hear and feel through eyes, ears and skin that are all connected to an almost unbelievably complex, warm, flesh and blood brain consisting of about eighty-six billion neurons which are constantly receiving, processing, and transmitting information to and from the rest of your body through electrical and chemical signals.

Now, with that warm brain consciously engaged, turn again and look into the snowman’s eyes of coal and consider that understood thus, your mind is not the “mind of winter” that is to be found in the snowman’s head. Think about it, for in what consists the snowman’s mind inside that snowy coal-eyed and and carrot nosed bedecked bonce? The answer? Well, snow, of course; nothing but snow all the way through.

What would it really be like to see those pine-trees crusted with snow, those junipers shagged with ice, those spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun and to hear the sound of the wind, a few leaves, the land, the same wind and the same bare place, not with a warm pulsating human mind, but with the snowman’s true mind of winter?

As Peck observes engaging in such a meditation means that 

“gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort.”

It is only when we, “the listener, who listens in the snow” have become as-if we really were a snowman (an entity remember that cannot hear, see or feel) that, paradoxically, we are able to begin to “see” and “hear” the winter world through his unseeing eyes of coal and un-hearing ears of snow. This uncanny insight, a seeing of what cannot be seen and hearing of what cannot be heard, is what it is to “know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort” and this is something that we can, of course, never really know.

This is a weird kind of knowing — a veritable not-knowing-knowing which is to have some kind of knowledge of what can never be known by us. 

To “know” the cold as-if we were a snowman would be not to know the cold, it would be to “see” the scene we can’t see and “hear” the sounds we cannot hear and this is the closest we can ever come to knowing winter “in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling.”

I hope you can see that to “see” the winter scene thus, “reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees ‘nothing that is not there’”, because it is now devoid of the imaginative correspondences that constantly fill our minds, the winter scene, indeed the whole world, has become ‘the nothing that is.’”

I also hope that you can now also see along with Pack that in this remarkable poem Stevens’ dramatizes for us

“the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.”

In becoming as-if a snowman we begin fully to understand how unlikely it is that anything can be known about ourselves or other entities in the world apart from the perspectives that our own human imaginations bring to “the nothing that is”. As Stevens himself noted elsewhere, “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us” (The Necessary Angel, Knopf, 1951, p. 169).

And here, finally, we come to what is for me the powerful, hopeful heart of the philosophical lesson Stevens feels a contemplation of the Snowman has to teach us, for in it we touch that ineffable something — that “world within us” — which always-already keeps us meaningfully alive and afloat in the what would be the otherwise bare universe of “the nothing that is”.

The poem offers us a case study of something that Heidegger once beautifully noted. Namely, that

“When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: the world holds forth” (cited in What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8),

The poem also reveals something else that Heidegger noted, Namely, that

“Even the most trivial thing is meaningful (even though it remains trivial nonetheless). Even what is most lacking in value is meaningful” (ibid p. 8).

And so we discover that the poem reveals a startling truth which has been no more beautifully and succinctly summed up than by the American philosopher Thomas Sheehan (b. 1941), that

“there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning” (ibid. p. 8).

True it is that, at times (and especially in the darkest coldest days of winter) we are all prone to sink into a slough of despond and misery and are tempted to think to ourselves that our lives, perhaps even all life, has no meaning and of crying out along with Qoheleth, “hevel havalim hakol hevel” — “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” — the truth is very different. This is because there really is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning, just as there is nowhere else for a snowman to “live” except in a world of no meaning. This realization helps us begin to see and fully understand that even when we utter and truly mean our desperate cry that “everything is (vanity) meaninglessness” it is to say at the same time that this is what meaninglessness means. There really is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning.

As you heard in our second hymn (O God, our help in ages past), the great late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century, non-conformist hymn-writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) believed our eternal home was to be found in a supernatural God. You may disagree, but it seems to me that in our contemporary secular culture world which finds it difficult to (or like me does not any longer) have full belief in the God of our Christian forebears, our true eternal human home (our true ground) is always-already to be found in the blessed, naturalistic reality that there really is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning.

And this insight, at least as I have sat with and reflected upon it, has helped me to sense that in the infinite sea of the bare universe — “the nothing that is” — astonishingly we find ourselves aboard an unsinkable ship of meaning. Now, to borrow a phrase from another eighteenth-century hymn, that's an amazing grace if ever there was one.

And the holy messenger, the (necessary) angel who, via Wallace Stevens’ vision, first brought this hopeful gospel to my warm, human mind was the cold snowman with his mind of winter . . .

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.

—o0o—

POSTSCRIPT

Although none of my writings should be considered finished (because they are only footprints [in the snow] never blueprints)—, as I was “finishing” this address on Saturday afternoon and was inspired to call the snowman “a [necessary] angel” I suddenly realized that, for me, this snowy entity had all day been “standing at my door” (to which I had not properly come) as the “the necessary angel of earth” in whose sight I “see the earth again” and of whom Stevens writes in his later poem from 1950, “Angel Surrounded by Paysans” (reproduced below).

A snowman, like the necessary angel, is a figure only “half seen, or seen for a moment, a man / Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in / Apparels of such lightest look that a turn / Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, [is] gone”. Indeed, were I to take a walk right now (on Saturday evening) out into Christ’s Pieces the snowmen whose portraits I took this morning (and which appear in the post above) would also have almost too quickly gone, melted quite away leaving only liquid lingerings . . .

Did Stevens have the snowman in mind as the angel surrounded by peasants when he wrote his later poem? Perhaps, perhaps not — but for me, somewhat like Mary in the Gospel of Luke, as I was treasuring all Stevens' words and pondering them in my heart, I realize that the snowman had been a holy apparition standing all day at my study door . . . 

Angel Surrounded by Paysans (1950)

One of the countrymen:
                                                                      There is
       A welcome at the door to which no one comes?
The angel:
       I am the angel of reality,
       Seen for the moment standing in the door.

       I have neither ashen wing nor wear of ore
       And live without a tepid aureole,

       Or stars that follow me, not to attend,
       But, of my being and its knowing, part.

       I am one of you and being one of you
       Is being and knowing what I am and know.

       Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
       Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

       Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
       And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

       Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings
       Like watery words awash; like meanings said

       By repetitions of half meanings. Am I not,
       Myself, only half of a figure of a sort,

       A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man
       Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in

       Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
       Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?  


—o0o—

A POST-POSTSCRPT

My Hebrew tutorials took place in the room with the bay-window on the left
I chose to read from Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) for what I hope were obvious reasons. However, what will not be obvious the to reader is the association this text has for me with winter and snow. At Oxford University I was taught the Old Testament paper and Hebrew by Father John Davis and I used to go for my Hebrew tutorials to his study in New Hinksey Vicarage attached to the parish church of St John's (all the photos here were taken on recent visit during December 2017 — which, given the subject of this address, fortuitously occurred during a snowy spell!).  As we sat working our way slowly and carefully through through the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes it began to snow heavily and we stopped to look through the bay-window at the back of the vicarage over towards “Hinksey and its wintry ridge”. The pause occasioned Father John to suggest we had a gin and tonic before going on (a regular occurrence I might add!) and, as he returned to the desk, he began to recite from memory the thirteenth stanza of Matthew Arnold's poem “The Scholar Gypsy”:

And once, in winter, on the causeway chill
Where home through flooded fields foot travellers go,
Have I not passed thee on the wooden bridge
Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,
Thy face towards Hinksey and its wintry ridge?
And thou hast climbed the hill
And gained the white brow of the Cumnor range,
Turned once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal light in Christ Church hall—
Then sought thy home in some sequestered grange.

It was one of those unique, magical, sublime and unrepeatable moments that can be experienced in that city of dreaming spires and, for it, I will remain ever grateful.

Hinksey's wintry ridge across the frozen reservoir

St John's Vicarage  (front)

St John's Parish Church

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