I've waited for a day like this, four thousand feet above the snow line, to feel the cold that I came to the mountains for. Fog wrapped my house from high on the slope to the valley beneath, swirled by a noisy wind. Then the flakes began to fall as though the fog had grown too cold to hover any longer. Color drained from the world leaving only shape to distinguish between pine needle and branch or sky and snowbank. Almost as a rite, I turned to Wallace Stevens' haunting poem The Snowman:
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 poem has inspired long, (but not heated), debate about its meaning. Does it bemoan, (a most wintry word), the misery of winter, or does it say that there can be no suffering in emptiness? Or both? Or more?
My answer is this painting by Alexey Savrasov. The spare beauty of its winter scene, using hardly any color and no presence of life at all, is like the eloquence of tragedy, comforting us somehow with its dignity and timelessness.
Winter by Alexey Kondratyevich Savrasov, 1870. Click on the picture for a closer look.
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