In that last few weeks I’ve read many, many critical essays on literature, so I thought I’d offer this parody suited to the season. None of the papers I read are really this crazy, but perhaps it says something about the critical essay form that it can be twisted this way.
Don’t worry. I’m not serious.
Recent criticism of the song “Winter Wonderland” has focused on it as a work of faith—Nagurski called the poem, “A utopian examination of how the coldest and least lively season, naturewise, can be really pretty cheery” and R. Grange mentioned it in his respected collection of critical essays, Songs that Make Me Grin. However, to see the work correctly, a reader needs to note its accretive fiction and the purposeful delusion that piles up like so many deep snow drifts. Doing so leads to the same conclusion T. S. Eliot reached when he said the song was “more a work of doubt than faith.”
As Eliot pointed out, the initial question in the song really frames the entire work. The first line asks, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” and the astute reader might ask in response, “Am I listening? Of course I’m listening. Wouldn’t I hear some damn sleigh bells if they were ringing?” The true question behind this seemingly innocent inquiry is whether the listener is willing to participate in an obvious fiction. The song queries, “Are you willing to accept the sound of sleigh bells? Conjure them now, if you will.” If the reader is unwilling to conjure, the end of that first verse, “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight / Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” rings emptily, offering an unsubstantiated, entirely unjustified happiness. Who is to say “We are happy tonight” after all? What is the basis for this so-called happiness? All the reader has to go on is the “glist’nin’ snow” in the lane in the third line. Is that enough? What if the reader had to drive somewhere—because some readers work at night, remember—would glist’nin’ snow make them happy? The aesthetic question “What is beauty?” also lurks like a creepy, half-inflated, ghostlike front lawn Santa.
Some readers undoubtedly will cry for suspended disbelief, but the poet, it seems, expects just such skepticism. The next verse makes no effort to rouse a reader or justify his or her elation over a little “glist’nin’” snow. In fact, it opens with an absence, “Gone away is the bluebird.” As an established symbol of happiness, the bluebird’s disappearance is conspicuous. The happiness so tentatively granted in the opening moments immediately disappears as well. It is gone, and in its place is some unnamed “new bird” a reader is supposed to find so comforting. An unnamed bird that arrives in winter when all of the others are flying south is worth comment. Few readers speak bird and thus could say with certainty whether this clearly lost bird is singing a love song or a lament that he is freezing in a climate for which he is clearly unsuited, the average tolerable temperature for a small bird being 45°F or 7°C, well above freezing. Does the author even expect a reader to swallow what is now the fifth supposition of the poem. Is it believable? It is not and—this is the song’s brilliance of course—it is not meant to be. This text looks happy, but like the glist’nin’ snow, its shiny surface hides a pretty bad car wreck waiting to happen.
The accumulating fictions continue apace in the third verse. “In the meadow”—does a reader need to be told it is a meadow; is not a reader just being reminded of what it is not—green, lush, and full of life? Then “we”—the author is careful to include readers so they begin to chafe against the restrictive hempen restraints with which he binds them so very, very, very tightly—”can build a snowman.” Yes, a reader could build a snowman, but would he? And if he did, would said snowman be anything more than an empty white figure who really stands for nothing and no one, a symbol of the companionship so many people so desperately seek and cannot find during the holiday season because no one really understands the workings of another mind, particularly a discerning mind that sees so, so much more in what others simply accept as “happy”?
By the appearance of Parson Brown, the enigmatic center of the song, the fiction has begun to wheel like the falcon in Yeats’ “Second Coming.” “We,” the identity superimposed on the reader, superimposes the name “Parson Brown” on a white no one. The name is pointedly bland, generic, but the color is interesting. The juxtaposition of white snow—which at its best might represent new hope—and brown—the color of decay and decline—is pointed. Similarly the verb “pretend” stands out. It is out in the open now, the reader is pretending and knows it. The conversation with this specious parson is not any more comforting. He says, “Are you married?” which is quite a personal question from a pile of compacted frozen precipitation. Yet the reader answers, “No, man! But you can do the job when you’re in town.” Again the fiction stretches beyond the bounds of credulity. Even if readers could accept they are out in a frozen meadow having a conversation with what amounts to an icy mannequin, even if they could accept that this frozen figure is endowed with a name and a job, even if they can accept that they are going to marry whoever is the narrator of this song, would any sane reader call a parson “man”? “Parson Brown” evokes early New England and “man” evokes Jack Kerouac and smoky nightclubs. The two cannot be in the same sentence. G. Sayer argues that it is the only way the rhyme would work, but a reader might remain unconvinced because the reader could have been convinced that a reader is supposed to be unconvinced by what is patently unconvincing. “You can do the job when you’re in town” obviates the failure of these multiple fictions. The parson / snowman is in town, and he cannot do the job because, based on thorough research into international statues, snowman weddings are not legally binding in any state or country.
Ultimately the poem leaves readers huddled by the meager consolation of a tepid fire. Readers “conspire” because they know it will take some cabal, some magic obviously absent in the early twenty-first century world, to make our “dreams”—aptly named—happen. The seemingly optimistic promise that readers will face their plans “unafraid” just illuminates the fear they do feel and can only attempt to face. Why do readers need to fear their own plans unless they know that these plans, like the parson statue still standing like a post in the empty meadow, are vulnerable fictions, ideas they cannot ever completely convince themselves are real. The final image of “walkin’ in the winter wonderland” leaves readers thinking of Lear wandering the moors, all anchors lost. It is indeed a “wonderland,” but readers are left wondering that they did not perceive its emptiness before now.