Monday, April 28, 2008

Robert Frost - Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

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.

---Robert Frost

Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

I did not love this poem the first time I read it in high school. I did not love it when, like a boomerang, it returned to me in college. And just last year, this was a poem I would skip over if I saw it in an anthology. There didn't seem much I could gain from this poem. It was straightforward; why should I waste my time and thinking power on a poem that clearly didn't need me. Frost had created a world that was compact and confined, or so I thought. Mary Oliver deserves much of the credit for this poem finding its way into my favorites. (Please do yourself a favor and pick up her Poetry Handbook from your library or bookstore. It's a spirited read on basic poetry concepts with an intended audience of writers and readers alike) In reading her Poetry Handbook earlier this year, I found Oliver's close reading and clinical treatment of Frost's Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening to be enthralling and highly educational. As Oliver proved, this just might be the ideal teaching poem. It has rhythm and meter, a fully developed structure, characters and images, an underlying story, and much mystery. I did not love this poem at first sight, but I've grown to love this poem---as often is the case with love.

Frost begins this iconic poem with a declaration that establishes a sense of the relationship between the poem's speaker and other characters. He starts, "Whose woods these are I think I know." Aha, I know who lives here, but wait, "His house is in the village though." Because he lives a distance from this spot, "He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow." The observing of nature and people has always been central to poetry; dare I say poets are glorified voyeurs...Frost's speaker in this poem is pausing for a rest in these woods filling with snow. He doesn't need to do much in terms of imagery to make this beautiful, a snowy woods is naturally incandescent and requires little to grow beautiful in our minds. Instead, Frost utilizes the first stanza to establish much of the poem's framework. He answers questions of where we are and what season we are in, while also texturing the poem's circumstances.

The second stanza turns our view to the speaker's horse, further flesching out the image of him stopping on this snowy evening. He has dismounted from his horse, who "must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year." Frost's generousity in endowing his horse with perceptiveness and intelligence is curious. He intends to raise our eyebrows with this bit of personification. Are we seriously to believe that a horse can discern all of the qualities in this situation that Frost lists? He gives these qualities to his "little horse" as a way of supplying them to readers. We can't avoid these questions, if nothing else for fear of being upstaged by a horse who rivals Mr. Ed in intellect. But why would we want to avoid these questions---they are, indeed, intriguing. Why is he stopping? What appeal does this woods hold? Are his intentions creepy? holy? sincere? for profit? And, like that, Frost has me hooked. Part of his ability to reel me in is certainly due to the tight rhyme scheme and carefully crafted lines with no extraneous words or repetitive line structures.

The third stanza picks up where the previous one left off with more personification. The horse's movement causes his bells to shake, which Frost interprets as asking "if there's some mistake." The horse has become a full fledged character and a mouthpiece for the reading audience. He has transitioned from a "little" insert to complete a rhyme scheme to a vital component in the poem's story. Frost is notorious for his attention to sensory detail. Notice his ear for sound in this poem, especially the third stanza. The calming quiet of a snow storm settles into our hearing when Frost describes the outside as "the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." But in this excellent bit of description, Frost is also omiting attention to the pivotal question of why the speaker is stopping, allowing tension and mystery to build. Oh, that Robert Frost was a crafty bugger.

Reaching the concluding stanza, we wonder if this reason for stopping will emerge and if a sight will be laid out before our speaker that will catalyze his respite into something larger and emblematic. Frost is direct and evasive at the same time in this final stanza, a very difficult task to accomplish. He praises the woods as "lovely, dark and deep," which seems to be an unlikely compliment. Dark and deep imply unease and impending danger or surprise, making their use as complimentary all the more intriguing. Why has he stopped? We'll never know, but we do know why he's leaving---well, we sort of know why: "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep." These are the type of last lines that deserve a haunting voice and an eerie wink. They leave me wanting another stanza, but I know another stanza would just about ruin their intrigue that Frost so carefully built in this poem. If we know what these promises are then they are less meaningful---as they are in this poem, these promises can be molded to fit readers specific impressions. The haunting refrain that ends the poem is unexpected and represents a tonal surprise. The sleep is obviously an allegory for much more, but again Frost is evasive and vague, which suits this poem very well. It teeters on the fringes, a perfect place for the poem's location and speaker.


Erin Kirk said...

There has been discussion about the end of the poem simply being the weariness of a tired traveler and not metaphorical at the phrase sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he describes the snow like a pall, and I've heard it interpreted more cynically to reference suicide. I think simply it's about death, eventually, and the weariness that comes along with duties one must keep...a longing to be free from those responsibilities, and yet knowing there isn't one. Beautiful poem. I like your blog - thanks for your insights.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Erin for your comments and I'm sorry it took me over a year to reply. I'm just catching up on all the comments now! Your analysis of Frost's poem is thought-provoking. I actually just read a poem this weekend, I believe it was a Naomi Shihab Nye poem, which cleverly used lines from Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, while also describing that Frost wrote the poem in the steamy heat of July.