Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening is a well known Frost classic. Published in 1923 it quickly became a poem to keep in the memory and although many people know the words by heart, interpretation isn’t quite as straightforward.
Robert Frost, when asked if the poem had anything to do with death or suicide, denied it, preferring to keep everyone guessing by simply saying ‘No’, but many think that the poem can be construed as a dream-like image of someone passing away, or saying a final goodbye.
- In many ways it’s a poem that trusts the reader, the words and the sounds and the sense appealing to all types, from those who regard it as no more than a winter scene with snowy woods, horse and rider, to others who feel a shudder when they read the final two lines.
It is this ambiguity that keeps the poem fresh. The narrative sets up this subtle tension between the timeless attraction of the lovely woods and the pressing obligations of present time.
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.
Lines 1 – 4
Starting off a poem with a possessive pronoun is a brave and unusual thing to do but Frost manages to make it work, immediately grabbing the reader’s attention. It’s as if the speaker is sitting close by, thinking out loud, perhaps whispering.
But this initial thought isn’t crystal clear, the speaker only thinks he knows who owns the wood – the first uncertainty is introduced – and he is making this statement to reassure himself as he comes to a stop, breaking his journey.
There is a gentle, slightly mysterious atmosphere created by the second, third and fourth lines, all suggesting that the owner of the woods lives elsewhere, is separate and won’t see this visual ‘trespasser’ near the woods.
It’s as if there’s something clandestine going on, yet the image presented to the reader is as innocent as a scene on a Christmas card. The rhythm of each line is steady, without variation, and there is nothing odd about it at all.
Lines 5 – 8
The second stanza concentrates on the horse’s reaction to the rider stopping. Enjambment, when one line runs into another without a loss of sense, is employed throughout. In effect, this is one long sentence, the syntax unbroken by punctuation.
Again the tetrameter reassures and lulls the reader into a false sense of security – the language is simple yet the meaning can be taken two ways. Queer is a word that means odd or strange, and the implication is that this person doesn’t ordinarily stop to admire the view; he only stops at farmhouses, to visit, to feed and water the horse?
Why stop tonight of all nights? It’s December 21st, winter solstice, longest night of the year, midwinter. Or is that word darkest misleading the reader? It is certainly winter, we know from the snow and cold, but darkest could just mean that, deep into the night, dark as ever.
Here sits the rider on his horse in what appears to be inhospitable countryside, staying too long, thinking too much? And all the long vowels tend to reinforce the lingering doubts of the horse.
Lines 9 – 12
The horse is uncertain, it shakes the bells on the harness, reminding the rider that this whole business – stopping by the woods – is a tad disturbing. This isn’t what they normally do. This is unfamiliar territory.
- It takes a creature like a horse, symbol of intuition, noble grace and sacrifice, to focus the rider’s mind on reality. They ought to be moving ahead; there’s something about the way this person is fixed on the woods that worries the horse, apart from the cold and dark.
There is no logical or direct rational answer given to the horse, there is just the speaker’s observation beautifully rendered in lines eleven and twelve, where alliteration and assonance join together in a kind of gentle sound dance.
Lines 13 – 16
The final quatrain has the speaker again reaffirming the peace and haunting beauty of the snowy woods. On another night perhaps he would have dismounted and gone into the trees, never to return?
The lure of idyllic nature, the distraction from the everyday, is a strong theme; how tempting just to withdraw into the deep silence of the woods and leave the responsibilities of work and stress behind?
- But the speaker, the rider, the contemplative man on the horse, the would-be suicide, is already committed to his ongoing life. Loyalties forbid him to enter the dreamworld, as much as he would love to chuck it all in and melt into the snowy scene, he cannot. Ever.
The last repeated lines confirm the reality of his situation. It will be a long time before he disengages with the conscious world.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening has four stanzas, all quatrains of iambic tetrameter, that is, each line has four beats, stressed syllables, maintaining a regular rhythm within the poem, perhaps suggesting the plod of a slow moving horse.
Rhyming words are very important in this poem as they contribute to the opposites of moving on or stopping, a major theme.
- Note that in the first three stanzas the third line of each does not rhyme with the opening two lines and the last. It creates an obstacle, it temporarily stops the smooth flow. Yet, this third line is a connecting link to the other stanzas, it provides momentum too.
The rhyme scheme is aaba bbcb ccdc dddd and all are full.
All the lines flow, there is no punctuation to create pauses (caesura), suggesting a continuation of life, a smooth familiar routine.
Third stanza, lines nine and ten – the horse gives a shake as if to question why they have stopped.
There are several examples: Whose woods/His house/watch his woods fill up with/He gives his harness/dark and deep.
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005