The Trouble With Snowmen by Roger McGough engages with the profound cycle of life and death, using a cement snowman as a symbolic object that anchors the message. The main themes in this poem are ageing, the inevitable life cycle, time and memories, and the development of childish innocence into adulthood. This deceptively simple poem engages with the perennial ideas of the natural process of ageing, life and death. McGough uses a cement snowman as a symbol of unchanging constancy.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Summary
The poem begins with the narrator recalling the words his father said one year- that the problem with snowmen is they disappear just as quickly as they are built. The father wants to build his child- the narrator- a snowman that will last. Instead of snow, he wants to build one of sand and cement, and have it cast into the shape of a snowman. This way, it will stand strong throughout the year, whether it is summer or winter.
True to his word, the father does build a cement snowman for his child. It still stands to this day, even after the narrator’s father has passed away. The father had built it in the garden, and now the narrator likens it to an “unmarked gravestone” facing the house, looking rather conspicuous and oddly shaped- as though it is waiting for something “bad to happen.” As the years go by, the narrator ages, too. And in his old age, the summers seem fleeting, while winters seem to drag on, cold and everlasting.
At those moments in his older age, the narrator starts to see the cement snowman differently. In his youth, it was a joyful and fascinating creation, but now, it stands there as a reminder of the days gone by and moments and memories that have been lost to Time. The snowmen he now envies are the ones made of snow. He envies the creations of the children that play every winter- the snowmen that stand beautifully in the snow, and eventually melt away as the sun comes out.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis
Roger McGough is an English poet who is widely known for the simple relatability of his work. He often writes about everyday aspects of life and growth, and admirably tackles weighty topics in an approachable manner. This poem is written in first-person narrative, split into four uneven stanzas. The narrator starts with a memory from his childhood, before bringing the readers to his current scenario. McGough uses an abcb rhyme scheme for the first two stanzas, which creates a light-hearted and merry tone to represent a joyful childhood recollection. The rhyme scheme changes in the last two stanzas to portray the change of mood that the poet experiences from childhood to his old age, and the way his perception of the cement snowman changes. The poet also employs similes to paint an image for his readers.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 1-4
“The trouble with snowmen’,
Said my father one year
‘They are no sooner made
than they just disappear.
In the first stanza, the poet recalls a memory of his father. The father sees the melting of snowmen to be a problem, for after all the hard work put into creating one, it disappears in a matter of hours- or even minutes. This may also represent the way one puts a huge amount of effort in different fields throughout their life- for example, earning money, working in a respected job, etc.- but in the end, when one passes away, it no longer holds value. All the hard work simply disappears.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 5-8
I’ll build you a snowman
And I’ll build it to last.
Add sand and cement
And then have it cast.
The father then tells the child “I’ll build you a snowman and I’ll build it to last.” which shows the affection between a parent and child. The narrator remembers it almost fondly, as a happy moment he shared with his father, and the length the father was willing to go for his child’s excitement.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 9-12
‘And so every winter,’
He went on to explain
‘’You shall have a snowman.
Be it sunshine or rain.’
The very idea of building a snowman out of cement is contradictory to its name. The point of snowmen is to build them out of snow, a thrilling event of the winter that children look forward to throughout the year. Snowmen are not meant to survive the summer. The father’s wish to build his child a cement snowman can be interpreted in two ways- and these two aspects may co-exist. One is that he wants to make his child happy, and wants to give his child a lasting symbol of the joy that the snow brings- an action done out of love. The other is that the cement snowman represents the father’s wish to hold onto something even after its time period is over. Here, he wishes to hold onto an element of winter even after the season ends- this depicts his desire to hold onto life and youth, even though these things are meant to slip away eventually. Life, like the seasons, is a natural process that cannot be avoided or manipulated.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 13-16
“And that snowman still stands;
though my father is gone.;
Out there in the garden;
like an unmarked gravestone.”
The tone of the poem takes a turn in the third stanza. The light-hearted mood becomes a melancholic, almost despondent one as we come to realise the narrator’s father has passed away. The cement snowman is unchanging, as the father had said- to the point where it even outlasted him. It remains as a memory of the father, which is why the narrator uses a simile to call it an “unmarked gravestone”. Though not being a tomb or having a plaque, it serves as a material reminder of the father’s death. After so many years, the object which once brought the narrator joy now brings him sorrow and unhappiness.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 17-20
“Staring up at the house;
Gross and misshapen;
As if waiting for something;
Bad to happen.”
The statue was made by the father’s hands, so of course, it is not perfect. But as a child, it looked like a work of art- meanwhile, as an adult, he sees it as “misshapen”. Its presence creates negative emotion. Now, not only does the cement snowman remind the narrator of his late father, it also reminds him that his own time is coming soon and that everyone will have to die at some point. The fact that it has outlived its builder, and will outlive the builder’s child- as is the reality of object versus nature- makes the narrator feel uneasy and ominous. This highlights the theme of transition from childish innocence to adulthood.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 21-24
“For as the years pass;
And I grow older;
When summers seem short;
And winters colder.”
The narrator reveals that he is growing old too, which is in line with the overall theme of ageing, and the natural process of life and death. Summer often symbolises freedom and growth, while artists and writers tend to use winter to represent grief, death or loss. Similarly, in this stanza, the narrator says “summers seem short,” implying that the joys in life become more and more fleeting, as though there is not much happiness left. While the dreariness of life- as portrayed by winter- seems heavier and more intense. Throughout it all, the cement snowman is a memoir of the cold winter season.
The Trouble With Snowmen | Analysis, Lines 25-28
“The snowmen I envy;
As I watch children play;
Are the ones that are made;
And then fade away.”
The narrator concludes by saying that in the end, he is envious of those snowmen that eventually melt, unlike his unchanging cement snowman in the garden. This displays his realisation that one cannot alter the natural processes of life, and it creates more difficult when one tries to hold on instead of letting go. Here, it can refer to two things- getting closer to death, and the remembrance of the narrator’s father. The narrator is envious that the children’s snowmen disappear with the sun, hence allowing them to start over and make new memories the next day- this highlights his wish to finally let go of his father’s memory and live happily. However, the ever-present cement structure makes it difficult to forget the father. As for the point about ageing: the process of watching a snowman melt away knowing that a new one will be built the next day- maybe a better one, a bigger one, a more creative one- brings about an aura of freshness. It is the feeling of improving, trying something new, a second chance- all of which are linked to the youth the narrator has left behind.