A very famous poem by Robert Frost, and included in nearly every high school english class' curriculum.

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.

I've always loved the rhyme pattern of this poem:

A A B A
B B C B
C C D C
D D D D

Each verse leads on to the next, until the final one, where the repetition of sounds brings a satisfying closure.

Makes it easy to memorize as well.

I first read this poem in early high school and it meant nothing to me. I didn't read it again until a few years later when my brother recommended it to me. I then realized why my english teacher was rather disappointed to see no one in the class understand it.

One interpretation of this poem (the one I feel suits it best) is that the man is considering a suitable place to end his life. I'm pretty anti 'doom and gloom' when it comes down to it, but there is something truly beautiful about that place 'between the woods and frozen lake' where you can just stop worrying about your obligations to the world. You'll not be discovered or rescued, and you will not tarnish the loveliness of your surroundings. You can leave your horse and be alone with the wind. If only you could ignore the miles and just sleep. I would like to think the man does continue... we all have promises to keep I suppose.

Another interpretation is something about a busy guy observing the beauty of nature... wow, that just sucks. Besides, I know a person who feels pretty strongly about the first interpretation...........CAPTAIN OBVIOUS.

And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

I've lost it tonight and the question that begs to be asked is have I ever had it? Walking down the deserted street at five in the morning, clutching a bag that holds the muffin that I ordered at Perkins not to eat, but so that I'd have an excuse to sit in the booth for two hours writing furiously and drinking coffee. I lost count of how many cups I drank, using it to fuel the mania that has raged inside me for the past week now. The muffin sat there untouched, but I brought it home so that my 1.50 wouldn't be wasted. Those lines popped into my head. That's the only poem I know by heart, a required recitation at the end of my senior year in high school, and I had two miles to walk before I got home.

So I started from the beginning, reciting aloud. his house is in the village though It hits me, I'm one of those crazy people wandering at night muttering to themselves. But the sound of my own voice was so reassuring to me, it was a cadence to keep me sane so that the fear wouldn't set in. I knew that once it did, I wouldn't be able to take it, I would break from reality right then and there, and the fear was very very close...the only other sound's the sweep of easy wind...under the most benign of circumstances trees scare me.

I stop after a few recitations so that I won't be a crazy person talking to herself in the middle of the night. promises to keep But I continue to repeat it in my head. I stop when I see the sign for 18th street because I live on 11th which means that there was only 7/8 of a mile left to go.

The rhyme scheme that evilrooster describes briefly is known as the rubaiyat stanza, or more specifically in this case, interlocking rubaiyat. It is a Persian form, the original and most pertinent example of which in English would be "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," as translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

There are few arguable alternatives to the concensus that this poem is a middle aged man's highly personal contemplation on death.

The tone of the poem is easily identifiable. The images of cold, quiet snow falling in a deep, dark wood temper feelings of gloom with a sort of passive calmness. The rider (which one could very likely equate with the poet himself) has stopped at the edge of the wood of his own volition, to observe the scene, and is indeed almost drawn to it.

In the second and third stanzas, the rider's horse fidgets nervously. This simple detail suggests life's gentle push to keep on going, making no room for impractical (or dangerous) stops along the way. This creates a contrast before which the woods appear to represent the cold sleepiness of death. The "sweep of easy wind // and downy flake" reinforce the muffled atmosphere.

The final stanza brings the poem's principle metaphor most glaringly to light, however. The equation of life to a physical journey with death is almost too obvious to mention, as is death to a restful sleep in the last two lines. The repetition of these two lines in conjunction with the rider's thought of "promises to keep" clearly indicates the poet's weariness. At this moment, with a long road still ahead of him, the dark glade seems to offer a dangerously tempting rest, from which he would not have to wake.

Altogether a very existential ending for a late Victorian Age poet like Frost. Although, life's struggles seem to present a meaningless, tiring effort, the poet resolves to continue on.


For a suitable musical backdrop to the reading of this poem, I suggest Soft Return, by Labradford.
"...it's clear you'll never stop going 'round..."

The speaker in Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" does seem to be considering ending it all, or perhaps is merely considering that it is an option. What's striking is that there are no references to strife or despair in the speaker's life, no hint of troubles that may be prompting such morbid reflection, only the alluring comfort of the soft, dark woods - eternal sleep. The speaker does not reveal the reason for being out and about on such a night - was there an urgent errand? Is it near the start or end of a journey? Why is he so weary? We don't know where the village fits in to the travel plans, if at all, nor his relationship with it, if any. These unknowns are worth considering.

Another unknown is the religious beliefs of the speaker. There are no hints in the text of the poem of an anticipated afterlife or fear of the damnation that is the fate of suicides in standard Christianity. Frost's religious background was Protestant. His mother was Presbyterian, Unitarians and Universalists made up his father's side.1  Frost's mother later became a Swedenborgian, even baptizing Robert as one.1  Unitarians are practically atheists; their religion is more a philosophy. Universalists reject the idea of hell and a wrathful God. Since his mother was originally Presbyterian, Frost may have been to their services, modeled loosely on the Catholic Mass, for family reasons from time to time, and perhaps absorbed some of their Calvinist ideas. Swedenborgianism is nominally Christian, though many regard it as Christian in the same sense that Mormonism is. Clearly Frost wouldn't have had a dogmatic indoctrination into a rigid belief system. A looser, more freeform, inward-looking spirituality would have been the road he traveled. Weddings and funeral observances in Frost's family were generally conducted by Unitarian ministers.1  Frost said he had been Swedenborgian, but was not any longer, describing his beliefs as "I am a mystic. I believe in symbols. I believe in change and in changing symbols."1  Considering that mental problems and instability were in evidence up and down the Frost family tree it is unsurprising he had some form of intensely personal relation to the numinous.2

When I studied this poem in high school, as legions do, Father Donat presented, naturally, a Catholic interpretation of it, with no mention of Frost's religion; that he was Christian was presumed. Frost probably didn't intend the religious overtones Fr. Donat saw, at least not to the same extent. The popularity of the poem means that it resonates for many people who have more traditional religion than the poet himself did, so the interpretation that follows, recalled vividly yet surely both embellished and diminished over 30 years, must be considered somewhat valid, insofar as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

"Whose woods these are I think I know." - Ultimately, they are God's woods, in the concrete sense. Abstractly, the woods represent the afterlife, and the comfort found in God's presence.

"His house is in the village though;" - The village church, the most prominent building in a rural village, its center, God's house.

"He will not see me stopping here" - God sees all, so either this is a subtle joke or it indicates that the speaker is, in a sense, lost.

"To watch his woods fill up with snow." - The endless stream of those called to be with God, perhaps.

 

"My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near"
- Wouldn't the horse be more concerned about a stable? Or a manger? (Not interpretation, per se; my own musings.)

"Between the woods and frozen lake" - In Dante's Inferno, Satan is trapped in ice at the center of Hades, the destination of suicides. One would aim for the comforting woods yet end up elsewhere (as a barren tree with one's discarded skin draped upon the branches, according to Dante).

"The darkest evening of the year." - The darkness of the speaker's thoughts is an obvious image. Arguably, the darkest night of the year is the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21-22, mere days before the birth of Christ, who brings redemption.

 

"He gives his harness bells a shake" - The bells recall church bells, rung as a call to worship or to toll someone's passing.

"To ask if there is some mistake." - The mistake here would be the speaker's premature departure.

"The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake."
- God's gentle voice in the background and the steady, gentle, natural progression of life - the individual souls borne along.

 

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep." - Again with the comfort of eternal rest. A simple statement, the line is a complete sentence; the only other such line is the first.

"But I have promises to keep," - Responsibility - to others, to God, to self.

"And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. "
- There is much remaining to do, of course. The repetition of the line has a quality of chant or prayer, and evokes a re-dedication to carrying on according to God's plan.

 


1. http://www.siouxcityuu.org/frost.htm - The Religious Sensibility of Robert Frost
2. http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=robert+frost

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