Sometimes beautiful poems become so familiar we don’t really hear them anymore. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has been analyzed endlessly, joked about, set to pop music tunes. But when someone asked me about it recently, I was amazed to see its original power as I walked through it.
STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The title sets the scene: the speaker has paused as he passes a woods in the winter. The first thing he tells us that they belong to someone–this isn’t a wilderness, there’s a village nearby, other people. I can’t help hearing some kind of quarrel behind the next sentence: “I can look all I want and you can’t stop me. How presumptuous to think a man can own woods anyway. And what for, when you’re living in the village?”
I’ve been picturing the speaker as completely alone, so I’m surprised and pleased to find he has company when the horse appears in the second stanza. He imagines the horse puzzled that they’ve stopped where they have. The scene in my head fills out: he must be driving a little horse and buggy along a snow-covered road past these woods, and a frozen lake. It may not be wilderness, but he’s outside the village, with its human connections and lights. He’s alone, in silence, everything muffled by snow and cold on “the darkest evening of the year.” The dark night of the soul, I think. But that’s when I hear that line as if for the first time: it’s not just dark, it’s “the darkest evening of the year”: solstice.
Then the harness bells snap me–and the speaker–into the present moment. I really hear them. The man’s not alone in the dark, there’s something else alive in the poem. The horse might not share his thoughts, but knows this isn’t the usual routine: “Are you sure you want to stop here? We don’t usually.” Then there’s a light wind, and the faint sound of snow falling. And then he says “But.” And I realize he’s been deep in revery, staring into the woods he’s passing, and now he’s shaking himself out of it. He still has promises to keep–presumably to others close to him, loved ones, maybe even to himself—more poems to write. He has obligations, and leaving the road and walking into the woods would mean leaving them behind. To do what? To sleep. To turn from the world of daily life. I’ve read this poem my whole life, and taught it, but because good poems never stop surprising you, for the first time I see that he’s really equating the woods with sleep—and inevitably with death. We know it’s there, waiting. But for now he’s passing by. And because nature is indifferent to our moods, it can sometimes save us from ourselves. The world will keep turning and, since it’s solstice, there will be a little more light tomorrow.