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.
Sharon, thank you so much for your perceptive reading of the poem. I’ve loved it since it was taught in my high school English class, despite the fact
that the teacher was insistent the poem was narrated by Santa Claus. The thought has occurred to me more than once that there may have been a purpose
behind her interpretation–to get high school kids to pay attention to Frost, or to poetry at all. The fact that I remember this from half a century ago must
mean something. Or maybe I’m still trying to read it her way. In any case, happy solstice to you.
Very perceptive and insightful, Sharon. Thanks for making me revisit. I used to teach this poem as well but haven’t read it in quite a while. What a fine piece of work. Memory. On a different note, I was looking through one of my old journals today and came upon something I took from Twain: “The older I get the things I remember most clearly never even happened.”
You’re welcome. I totally agree with Twain. Every time I describe a long-time memory to someone, they say, “Well, that wasn’t quite what happened.”
Thanks Sharon, I love this poem too. And I think of the speaker saying , “and miles to go before I sleep” twice as both affirmation and hopefulness because we all know it might be otherwise. (with a little Jane Kenyon there in my mind.)
You’re right, Sharon — on reading the poem again along with you, I see that the last stanza, which I had always heard as a bit self-pitying (I’d like to stay with nature’s beauty but I am a grown-up and can’t waste time on daydreaming) is actually a rejection of the seductive nihilism of lying down in the snow and never getting up again. Thank you as always for slowing down the poem.
One of my favorite things, slowing a poem, walking through it. I still can’t believe I’d never noticed it was a solstice poem, but there it is right there. I think of it as very personal–more a prod to himself, as someone who had very dark periods, than to nihilist philosophy.
from Lloyd Schwartz:
It’s funny, years ago, the Norton anthology, which had been publishing “Stopping by Woods” correctly for decades, switched to the catastrophic new punctuation by that editor whose name I won’t mention (may he rot in hell). I wrote to them as soon as I discovered this, and I actually got an acknowledgement in the next edition in about 1 and 1/2 point type. The first of my only two appearances in a Norton anthology (the other was correcting an erroneous footnote to a Bishop poem, in equally minute type).
I find Frost’s apparently simple and predictable rhyme scheme astonishing. The first three stanzas moving easily but slowly along, a,a,b,a; b,b,c,b; c,c,d,c–with only one step forward in each stanza, the the other rhymes all looking back to the previous stanza. Subtle but no big surprises. But when we get to the last stanza–the one beginning “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” not only are the last two lines repeated, but it’s the same rhyme–the backward-looking “d” rhyme (“sweep,” “deep,” “keep”) until the whole rhyme pattern comes to a complete stop with us feeling the huge pull of “sleep” and “sleep.”
ps: I love writing about this. I’ve taught it this way but I don’t think I’ve ever written it down.
I love re-entering Frost’s poem with you as my guide, Sharon. It’s been so long since I first read or taught it–and more life experience (and age) brings new insights. I love your reading of the last stanza—and reminding us that this happens on winter solstice, too. Thank you & good wishes for the return of the light next week.