A Mind of Winter


One must have a mind of winter
—Wallace Stevens

Snow left by the blizzard has receded here, but the cold continues on. We view the landscape from the warm side of the window, venturing out only as our needs require.

On sunny days, a cat may be found stationed on a window ledge, watching deer as they amble past. From inside, I voyage by other means, starting out with P2092495_edited-1The Snow Man, the first lines of which are these:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

In Philadelphia, it’s a tradition to gather at Kelly Writers House for a close reading of The Snow Man. I wasn’t there, but on listening in I learned about homemade soup and bread on offer, a display of hamish knowledge that, in winter, the body needs warming every bit as much as the poetry-loving soul.

After the close reading, members of the group read from winter-themed writings they chose to share. This year’s included everything from a passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace to a clever pairing of poems by Keats (O thou whose face has felt the winter wind) and Rosemarie Urquico (You should date a girl who reads).

The ghost of Keats presides over The Snow Man in other ways, too. The last lines in the Keats poem In drear knighted December are these:

The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

The critic Helen Vendler believes “we understand The Snow Man better, I think, when we see it as Stevens’ answer to Keats’s challenge” issued in that poem.

P2092471_edited-1Vendler walks us through Stevens’s “continuing inner dialogue with Keats.” She shows us, among other things, that Keats’s “tree” becomes specific trees (pine, juniper, and spruce), “frozen time” becomes frost, snow, and ice, and “not to feel” becomes “not to think.” In her ice-clear logic, she concludes:

Stevens’ bold stroke of the three “nothing’s” closing The Snow Man announces, as with a closing of one door and the opening of another, the discovery of the abolition of one old self by a new one, which necessitates at first the contemplation of an absolute void.

I wondered, as I listened to Al Filreis toss out questions, what would Helen Vendler say? Of one thing I’m sure: she’d speak in complete sentences without a hiccup of thought anywhere in sight. But the beauty is that’s not what matters. Anyone can take part, and it’s fun to try.

Perhaps my favorite part on listening in was Filreis’s exhortation to those assembled to read The Snow Man aloud:

. . . because this is what we do, because when you read this poem you shake off winter, because it’s impossible to have a mind of winter. And when you really, really do it right, you get to see winter for what it is. It’s not miserable. That’s why we created this program. The idea is to scare off the winter blues, the misery and the wind, because . . . it is simply the winter, and the sun is simply doing its thing . . . . OK, here we go, ready together, all of us, with wintry gusto . . .

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Wallace Stevens reads The Snow Man (for the text, click here):


Listening List

Mind of Winter at Kelly Writers House, 2013

Collaborative close reading of The Snow Man

Video and audio of entire 2013 program

For Wallace Stevens on PennSound, click here.

Winter Music

A Spotify playlist may be found here, and additional selections here. For YouTube selections, see below.

George Benjamin, A Mind of Winter

“A Mind of Winter is a bejewelled setting of Wallace Stevens . . .”. — Clements

John Luther Adams, In the White Silence (excerpt)

John Luther Adams (not to be confused with John Adams) . . . . works best on a larger canvas, and In the White Silence, where Morton Feldman rubs shoulders with Alan Hovhaness, should win the composer many friends, for it’s a gorgeous 75 minutes of meditative stillness.—David Hurwitz

Hans Abrahamsen, Winternacht

“[T]he precision and poetic intensity of these miniatures, inspired by the poetry of Trakl, are as extraordinary as ever.—Andrew Clements 

Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus (excerpt)

Terje Isungset, Fading Sun (using instruments made from ice)


Postscript: While I’ve included review excerpts on less familiar pieces where available, I don’t necessarily share the reviewer’s taste. For example, while I thought the Benjamin piece interestingand certainly on pointI’m not altogether keen on it as a setting of the poem.

Credits: The quotations from the poems may be found at the links provided. The quotations from Helen Vendler are from Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. The quotation from the 2013 Kelly Writers House Mind of Winter program is my transcription of an excerpt from the audio of the program that may be found here. The quotations about music on the listening list may be found at the links provided. The photographs, as always in these posts unless otherwise indicated, are mine.


26 thoughts on “A Mind of Winter

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Well, quite a compliment to think the post made you miss winter! As for Vaughan Williams, so many fine pieces, right?–and it sounds as if you had a nice concert there! I actually didn’t know of Sinfonia Antartica until I began to prepare this post. Lovely piece, isn’t it?

  1. David

    I wish we had what you picture so beautifully. Now it’s just icy cold and grey – not the ideal weather to go exploring Essex’s remoter corners (yes, it does have them).

    Trying hard to like George Benjamin in preparation for his recent opera Written on Skin which opens at the Royal Opera House soon. All I can say so far is he certainly knows how to orchestrate…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      By the time I was writing this post, the sunny snow days had passed off, and we’ve had more gray than not, too. It is hard to go outside exploring in cold, wet, weather, isn’t it?

      As for Benjamin: As with almost every piece associate with this post, I didn’t know Benjamin’s and don’t know his work, generally. It’s interesting what you note about his ability to orchestrate. I was taken with the instrumental part of his A Mind of Winter–far more than I expected to on first listen–but I continue to have a lot of trouble with the vocal part. I’ll be interested to hear your report of his opera.

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    Cold rain, falling throughout the day, has banished all but a few remnants of our snow within the city. And this evening, in the gathering dusk, looking from our windows towards the park in the square we observe that there is all but nothing left of the snowman built by children earlier in the week.

    We are, as you might possibly suspect, in awe of your slide show depicting a landscape still in the grips of winter. And how wonderful it looks. Wonderful too is the reading of The Snowman by Wallace Stevens.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane and Lance: Ah, poor melted snow man! Our snow was pretty while it lasted (and we weren’t so inundated as our neighbors to the east and north, so it didn’t cause big problems). I was delighted that a few photographs came out well enough to post. I’m pleased you enjoyed Stevens’ reading of the poem, too. Some don’t find him a great reader, but I like this reading a lot.

  3. newleaf2013

    Susan, What a perfect choice for right now! I like the way Stevens enters the winter snow experience on a cellular level with “beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” All that is unnecessary drops away, leaving the pure moment – not written like a haiku, but giving the same effect. And your photographs capture the poem’s essence better than any music ever could: they are silent and grand, and point the way past winter, being through it. Thank you for the loveliness of this piece. Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: I love your observation “all that is unnecessary drops away, leaving the pure moment.” I’m so pleased you enjoyed the piece.

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    I used to be a snowman too, and have countless winter memories. A twist of fate brought me to Florida, and I’ve grown fond of it, but it took a very long time and I will always treasure the 4 distinct seasons of the north. I’m fond of telling non-Floridians, ‘you ain’t been cold till you’ve been cold in Florida.’ It’s true. With the humidity, 40° is bone-chilling. Also I live in a house with no heat. Stevens would have to construct a completely different version of ‘The Snowman’ to get into the mind of a Florida winter. To be that cold and yet without the benefit of snow, to be cold to the bone and yet look out on the same green foliage you see year round…. (seems to me I have 2 poems to write now, thanks to you: ‘The Indispensables’ and ‘Florida winter mind’)….

    Always amazed at how you find new musical landscapes. Isungset is amazing, and now I’m enjoying John Luther Adams on your spotify list.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      I look forward to your Florida winter poems! While I haven’t experienced Florida’s version of cold, but I do remember, from many visits to England, that damp cold and how it goes right through you. I hope by now it has warmed up where you are.

      So glad you’re enjoying some of the music. Almost all of these pieces were new to me. I stumbled across Isungset by accident–a fun trail to follow there. I was familiar with JLA and suspected he’d be a prime candidate for music appropriate to the post, and so it proved to be.

  5. angela

    Quite jealous of those wonderful photos – we were promised a big storm – bah, not enough to even cover the field for snowshoes. “The Snow Man” is such a wonderful poem. I started a discussion on it months ago not knowing at the time of the KWH tradition. Thank you for the added information, as well!

    Btw, thought of you for just saw that Coursera is offering at least two music appreciation courses in the future – one is general and one is Beethoven’s Sonatas – from Curtis Institute of Music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: While snow can create problems, as we all know too well, it can also provide respite from the endless brown and gray, can’t it? We’re back to the latter here, too. I bet you got a good discussion going on The Snow Man! And thanks for the heads up on the Curtis courses. I have been on the lookout for something like this, so I’m pleased to know about them.

  6. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    this is a wonderful post, thank you!
    The tradition to gather for a close (!!) reading of The Snow Man (or at another time another poem or text) is interesting – so you get a structure and, if you are lucky, one is rewarded by something new, when the members of the group bring their theme-share.
    Can you please tell me what “hämische knowledge” means? Couldn’t find it in a dictionary and wonder, because in Germany the word ‘hämisch’ has a negative connotation, which your sentence definitely has not. .
    I really am impressed by your kind of Literary Group!
    And your photos and the music: so beautiful, thank you!
    PS: I do love winter very much – though most people cannot understand that. Everybody here is moaning – of course it is nice when green and other colours come back – but I can wait with patience.

    1. Steve Schwartzman

      The word is spelled in various ways in English, including haimish and heimish, because it’s transcribed from Yiddish, which uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Yiddish origin accounts for the fact that the word is so similar to German hämish, but unlike hämish and English homely, the Yiddish word is not negative. The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: ‘Warm and comfortable; homey; folksy.’

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Steve Schwartzman, word maven extraordinaire (how’s that for mixing languages heedlessly, even if I can’t spell the words correctly!), comes to the rescue! I realized, once Britta pointed it out, that I needed to specify a Yiddish spelling to get google to give me what I needed. Before your comment came up, I located the spelling hamish and changed it to that. Of course, if I’d written homey to begin with, I’d have avoided the pitfall, but what fun is that?

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: So pleased you enjoyed the photos–and thank you so much for the translation alert! As you can see, our word maven Steve Schwartzman has stepped up to the plate to explain. I’m glad at least that you were able to realize, by the context, that I meant something decidedly positive in any event! ModPO (the Literary Group) has been fun and is definitely a gift that keeps on giving.

  7. friko

    If such poems can be had to read and share, if such music is available for the listeners’ delectation, what makes winter a hardship?

    I can see you – and Josie – ensconced in your cosy home, reading and discussing poetry and listening to music. I hope there is a bottle by your elbow and a cat on your lap.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Now that does sound idyllic. I’ll have to confess it’s not precisely the reality of the situation (though cat in lap and, in the evenings, a glass of wine, are often at hand), but I’ll take it, nonetheless!

  8. Steve Schwartzman

    I was enchanted with your alliterative phrase “the warm side of the window,” and also with the notion of people getting together each year to read through the same and other seasonally related poems. The equivalent in Austin would have to celebrate the baked earth of August, though probably few people here would think celebrate an appropriate word for that season.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I was quite taken with that tradition as well, as you can see. Who knows, maybe poems of “baked earth in August” will form the basis of a new tradition . . . though in that case I suspect the warm side of the window would not hold such appeal . . .

  9. shoreacres

    I was taken with your phase, ” in winter, the body needs warming every bit as much as the poetry-loving soul.” It’s a neat inversion of a line from the old union organizing song, “Bread and Roses”, originally connected to the 1912 garment workers strike in Massachusetts but today more often associated with the various Bread and Roses concerts which began in the Bay area in the 1970s. In the song, the line is, “hearts starve as well as bodies – give us bread, but give us roses”.

    Of course I loved the shadow of that particular tree in your slide show – it recalled another poem, different shadows. I still think Bronte’s “Spellbound” the best winter poem ever, but I enjoyed “The Snow Man” very much.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Love the association to Bread and Roses! And what is it that is so endlessly evocative about those shadows?

      Spellbound I didn’t know, and I think it ought to become part of the “record,” so here it is:

      The night is darkening round me,
      The wild winds coldly blow;
      But a tyrant spell has bound me
      And I cannot, cannot go.

      The giant trees are bending
      Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
      And the storm is fast descending,
      And yet I cannot go.

      Clouds beyond clouds above me,
      Wastes beyond wastes below;
      But nothing drear can move me;
      I will not, cannot go.

  10. wanderer

    Needless to say, I find all this winter wonderland talk completely romantic and dreamy. Which means of course I’ve not ever experienced one! Nor likely as the years creep by. The best we can manage here in the country house is the odd frosty morning and little snow flurries every few years. The photos are wonderful and bring you that much closer.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Every place has its own kind of weather magic, though, doesn’t it? We just had another big snowstorm today. I’m ready for warmer weather and a bit of springtime about now, but it does look beautiful out there, I’ll admit.

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