On first reading the collection, I found Yves Bonnefoy’s The Beginning and End of Snow to be one of the most beautiful philosophical poems I had read: it seemed, in other words, like just the sort of thing Wallace Stevens would have written, had he the abstraction of French poetry, and the example of Valery, behind him. At the same time, the feeling that it was a distinctly philosophical poem—or series of poems—was difficult to explain beyond the resemblance to Stevens.
The notion that some poets write poetry that is also philosophy was most famously expressed by T.S. Eliot, on several occasions. In the essay, “Dante,” in the second section: “From the Purgatorio one learns that a straightforward philosophical statement can be great poetry.” In “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca”: “When Dante says ‘la sua voluntade e nostra pace’ It is great poetry, and there is a great philosophy behind it. When Shakespeare says ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; | They kill us for their sport,’ it is equally great poetry, though the philosophy behind it is not great.” Eliot’s formulations shift, but the object seems real enough. Picking up the thread, James Smith in his excellent essay “On metaphysical poetry”: “Whereas Dante and Lucretius take seriously the propositions they quote, Donne does not do so: he quotes them, not as something true, but as possibly useful for inducing a belief in something else, which he believes is true.” And later: “For I think it can be said, of both Dante and Lucretius, that they were not so much themselves metaphysicians, as the disciples of metaphysicians; and disciples have a way of being more certain than their master. There is, for example, an obvious contrast between Thomism as one meets it in Dante, and as one finds it in Thomas itself.”
Both Smith and Eliot are rich in possibilities, with Smith building on what he finds in Eliot. But it is C.S. Lewis, in his essay “Dante’s Similes,” who narrows to the right degree of sharpness a thought that was being hewn in both. The subject of Lewis’ essay, Dante’s similes, owes something to a portion of Eliot’s essay, elaborating on and extending Eliot’s discussion of Dante’s distinctly visual imagination, and his similes that focus the mind’s eye on the physical realities he describes. Lewis, however, posits four distinct uses of simile in Dante: one owing to Homer, one to a Virgilian tradition that dominates European poetry, a third to the intensely visual simile that Eliot describes, and a fourth that points to an especially satisfactory account of what it might mean for a poet to be thought philosophical, not only, as Eliot has it, in his or her inheritance of thought, but in the form and substance of the poetry itself—in this case, in the form and substance of similes:
The principle is that the things compared are not yoked together by a momentary poetic analogy, like Vulcan and the old woman—an analogy which disappears the moment you step out of that particular poetic context—but by a profound analogy or even identity. Like, in these similes, is always tending to turn into same.
In Purgatorio, XV, 64-75 Dante re-states Aristotle’s distinction between goods that are, and goods that are not, objects of competition. He uses the image of light which gives more of itself in proportion as the body it falls on is more highly polished, with the consequence that the greater number of such bodies the more light there is for all. There are two things to notice about this simile. In the first place, though it is excellent poetry, it is the sort of simile that could equally well occur in philosophical prose. In the second place, the use of light, as a symbol for what is here symbolized is almost a part of nature, not of art…
In Purgatorio, XXV, 22 the relation between the disembodied spirit and the phantasmal or aerial body (which is all the body it has till the resurrection) is expounded by the successive similes of Meleager wasting away as the brand wasted and a mirror image moving in accord with the reality. We should be quite deceived if we thought Meleager was introduced here for the same emotional purposes as Milton’s Proserpine and Orpheus. He is there for the sake of precision. The disembodied soul is not an animal and therefore does not animate its aerial vehicle as we now animate our terrestrial bodies. The relation between them is one of response or correspondence, like that of a mirror image to a real object, or (as Dante says later) of shadow to body. And of such relation the occult sympathies presupposed in such witchcrafts as that suffered by Meleager are a very good example. Perhaps this is not, strictly speaking, a simile. Meleager and the brand are not simply like the souls and their aerial bodies: they are another instance of the same laws.
It will be easily seen in what sense Dante’s similes are “metaphysical.” The connexion between the two members is real, ontological, intelligible, and the material need not be in itself beautiful or may be even grotesque…
The point of Dante’s similes is to suggest a broader philosophical argument, law, or relationship, behind one instance by linking it, in the simile, to another instance. The similes function, that is, much as examples in philosophical prose function; they are intended to highlight not only (they might do more than one thing) the relationship between the two situations or objects that are compared, but to clarify, by means of bringing a second instance into view, the formal abstraction to which both adhere.
Lewis provides a way of making better sense of what it means for a poet to write philosophically: they must both possess a sense of generalized abstract relations and also deploy similes (and metaphor more broadly) in order to illuminate the human experience of that abstraction. On such an account, it is easier to grasp why Bonnefoy’s The Beginning and End of Snow is philosophical poetry.
And yet work remains to be done, because the snow of the poems is not offered as a simile: however, I suggest that we read the images of snow as instances, in the sense that Lewis describes Dante’s similes as being instances. We are given, that is, one half of a simile, with the implication that it is an instance of something more general, where that more general something is itself established by the rest of any given poem, and which may be time, or God, or Being, or language (they might collapse into the word “Logos”). The snow’s existence is a formal analogy for the conditions of existence as it is experienced by the poet.
Take two of the short poems from the collection, translated by Hoyt Rogers:
A Bit of Water
I long to grant eternity
To this flake
That alights on my hand,
By making my life, my warmth,
My past, my present days
Into a moment: the boundless
Moment of now.
But already it’s no more
Than a bit of water, lost in the fog
Of bodies moving through snow.
I walk on, through the snow. I’ve closed
My eyes, but the light knows how to breach
My porous lids. And I perceive
That in my words it’s still the snow
That eddies, thickens, shears apart.
Letter we find again and unfold:
The ink has paled, and the bleached-out marks
Betray an awkwardness of mind
That makes their lucid shadows just a muddle.
We try to read, but we can’t grasp who this is
In our memory who’s taking such an interest
In ourselves, except it’s still summer; and we see
The leaves behind the snowflakes, where the heat
Still rises from the absent ground like mist.
The snow is not a symbol because that would mean that it is something other than what it is; the snow is snow. But the speaker’s relation to snow, and the snow’s relation to time, are themselves supposed to be felt as instances, illustrative examples, of the speaker’s relationship to being, and being’s relationship to time.
The collection depends on a naivety recovered and cultivated to new ends—what the title of the Rogers translation refers to as a “second simplicity”—since the starting point is that “snow is like a lot of things.” It is the writing prompt of a second-grade class. The way the poems would go wrong—as they do not for Bonnefoy—would be in insisting that the snow is ever anything other than snow; it’s snowness is what makes the poems come alive. In “A Bit of Water,” the snow’s dissolution is just that, while it is the reflection on what constitutes the moment of being alive to hold the flake that freights the temporality of snow’s particular concrete realness with significance beyond itself. In “Summer Again,” the snow is equated with a letter and reading. I wrote that the snow is a half of analogy that is not complete and here it would seem that the analogy, collapsed in a statement of identity between “snow” and “letter,” is quite complete; but especially here, the snow must, if we are to make sense of how it is the letter, and how it fills the memory, and obscures the past, be both itself and, in its particular properties, cold and foreign to the summer, an instance of some other feature of time and being.
Bonnefoy was trained as a mathematician and it is tempting to imagine that the snow is a variable; but that temptation would mislead, since the snow must be what it is; it is instead a constant, a mysterious coefficient, like pi, which define the function of being and time, among the other variables, the other words and images, of each poem.