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In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from his book entitled New Hampshire, the poet descriptively evokes a bucolic New England winter ambience (which Frost knew quite intimately) and utilizes a simple narrative soliloquy centering around a rural traveler, who is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a commonly understood and easily identifiable situation. These textual choices are employed for the purpose of subtly and cleverly articulating and arriving upon large-scale existential conclusions regarding the human condition. In this poem, which is described by Elizabeth Sergeant as “The most limpid and perfect of [Frost’s] lyrics” (249), and which was written, as the poet himself explained “…in one stroke of the pen” (249), Frost utilizes language that is concurrently: simple and grandiose, surface-accessible and metaphorically rich, vague and specific, apathetic and emotion-laden, carefully articulated/witty and in layman’s vernacular, and to the end, with flawless execution of what he describes as “…performance and prowess and feats of association.”
Frost’s utilizes language that is highly ambiguous while simultaneously densely complex metaphorically or analogically. Lawrence Thompson describes these lyrical characteristics as “New England reticence and fondness for understatement” (123), and works to afford certain key words (i.e. “promises,” “miles,” and “sleep”) dualistic and distinct “inner planes” (123) of interpretation and connotation. Moreover, this structural methodology, while often making it difficult for the reader to assuredly arrive upon the author’s original intent, enables each reader “to unlock the metaphor,” (123) so that they can establish their own personal connection to the text. It is this lyrical mastery that brings readers back to the works of the great poets of previous generations, despite the time differential. These successful lyrics and insights remain fresh upon countless readings, serving as existential master-narratives, and never appear anachronistic with regard to emotional intensity and verbal richness. The first three stanzas of “Stopping by Woods” alone, lend credence to the poet’s masterful descriptive lyrical sophistication, and do justice to the poet’s own famous remark on the subject of poetry, that “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” However, the poem’s fourth stanza most brilliantly personifies Frost’s fundamental essence, as the lines:
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. (13-16).
Masterfully articulate the poet’s subtle and complex emotional state and careful employment of wit that “…will forever keep [the poem’s] freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance,” infusing “Stopping by Woods” with the essential ingredients to allow it to “run by [its] own associational melting.”
“Stopping by Woods,” a poem written as if addressing an unacknowledged friend, appears to be, on the surface, a simple dramatic soliloquy. The speaker is traveling on horseback through an unidentified rural area on a snowy and dark winter evening and decides to pause to reflect upon his surroundings. In doing so, the speaker becomes enthralled with the lure of the natural world of the “the woods [which] are lovely, dark and deep” (13), and immediately is overcome with feelings of complacency and satisfaction upon being momentarily withdrawn from civilization. However, the speaker triumphs over this fascination with nature (for better or worse) and wills himself to continue to travel onwards, in spite of his inclination and desire to prolong his stay, as well as his likely physical and psychological fatigue. Frost’s speaker’s situation amidst the snow-filled rural wood, a microcosm of the natural world from the poet’s New England vantage point, serves as a symbolic representation of a place of tranquil respite and escapism from the fast-paced and complex modern world. Ironically, while the speaker seems to acquire moderate refuge from the daily concerns/responsibilities of the civilized world by “Stopping by [the] Woods,” his presence alone effectively acts to impose worldly or temporal concerns on the otherwise carefree and unimpeded natural world. This idea is evidenced by the speaker’s acknowledgement that the woods in which he currently views are someone’s private property, as he explains “Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village; though;” (1-2), and thus, like the speaker, the personified woods become subject to the whims and actions of humans.
Structurally, “Stopping by Woods” comprises of four consistently iambic quatrain length stanzas of nearly identical construction. The rhyme scheme, A-A-B-A, B-B-C-B, C-C-D-C, D-D-D-D, is one in which the first, second, and fourth lines of each of the first three stanzas are end-rhymed, and the third line’s final word determines the rhyme scheme for the next stanza. The final stanza follows the established format in that its end-rhymes are based on that of the final word of the previous stanza. However, the third line of the final stanza does not start an end-rhyme anew, but rather concludes the poem with an unimpeded continuation of the fourth stanza’s end-rhymes. This somewhat peculiar rhyme scheme, in which the last word of the third line of the first three stanzas “predicate[s] the three sounds which are to be repeated in the next stanza, thus interlocking stanza with stanza” (Thompson, 84), serves to link the first three stanzas together to form one seamless entity. This pattern, in conjunction with Frost’s scarce usage of punctuation in the first three stanzas, serves to drive the tempo of the poem, as well as to blend the stanzas into an interwoven surreal and dream-like fabric of descriptive imagery. The speaker’s fast-paced and fantastical tone abruptly changes, however, upon arrival at the fourth stanza, into a more deliberate hyperconscious characterization. This change is evidenced by the disjuncture resulting from the influx of punctuation in the line “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” by the end-stopping commas at the conclusion of the latter three lines, as well as by the repetition of the entirety of the penultimate line in the final line. Through these subtle syntactical techniques, the speaker symbolically arises to the realities of human existence, and is forced to deliberate the consequences of his decision. While the speaker takes pains with the implications of his choice to reintegrate himself into human society, he assures his audience that he will stay true to his “promises.”
The poem’s final stanza, as well as the poem’s tone at large, perhaps alludes to the first stanza of a sonnet by Keats published in 1817, which reads:
Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there
Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles of Foot to fare (Sergeant, 251).
In both quatrains, the speakers describe losing their senses of reality amidst their respective nocturnal, bucolic surroundings. It is only after both speakers verbally assert the necessity of ambulating away from the dark woods that they are able to combat the lure of nature and continue on their journeys back to the civilized world. George Nitchie explains that “…human complications of responsibility and desire become poignant through their contrast with nature’s impersonal simplicity” (22), as nature’s appeal lies in its serene ambience of carelessness and lack of responsibility. Thus, as the speaker gets caught up in “…watch[ing the] woods fill up with snow” (4), “…the frozen lake” (7), “The darkest evening of the year” (8), “…the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake” (12), etc., he seems to forget or at least is sidetracked “…from the world of social considerations and ethical complexity, the melancholy-engendered world of fallen man” (91), as potently, though subtly and implicitly, encapsulated by the feelings provoked in the poem’s final quatrain. The woods provide an illusory place of withdrawal from the complexity that has plagued human existence ever since the biblical times of Adam and Eve. They evoke in the speaker a sense of nostalgia for a time when mankind lived in harmony within the natural world, devoid of human concerns (i.e. in the Garden of Eden or even in childhood). The speaker soberly acknowledges his responsibilities to human society as captured by the subtly woeful tone of the line “But I have promises to keep,” (14) implying that practical considerations force him to practice self-restraint, and act against his inclinations to inhabit the woods. Furthermore, the utilization of a wintry landscape as evidenced by several references to the climate (“the frozen lake,” “downy flake,” “the darkest evening of the year,” etc.) bring to both the speaker’s as well as the reader’s attention the fact that absent shelter, the New England winter is not amenable to human habitation. Likewise, should the speaker fall asleep in these severe conditions, he will inevitably be subject to nature’s wrath, lacking food, shelter/warmth, companionship, etc, and possibly suffering a premature death.
These aforementioned considerations, which are implicated by the word “promises” in the final stanza, result in the speaker’s arrival at the logical conclusion that he must forge ahead in spite of his strong emotional attachment to his surroundings. This decision, in light of the circumstances, highlights the speaker’s agency and ability to act against his natural inclinations and evidences mankind’s ability to practice self-restraint. Nevertheless, Frost’s repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” (15-16), begs the question of whether the speaker has, in fact, “taken” the proper “road,” as the final line casts doubt within the speaker’s mind on his decision, serving as a reinforcement of his now irreversible course of action. Nitchie articulates this concern very lucidly, as he, drawing on both “Stopping by Woods” and “Reluctance,” explains that these lyrical statements “declare…it treason of the heart to yield to necessity and compromise desire” (162) given the speaker’s “yearning nostalgia” (163) and strong tendency towards habitation within the natural world.
Frost’s adroit ability to utilize language that is witty and metaphorically rich while at the same time vague and somewhat generalized in its definitive meaning serves to infuse his poetic texts with a sense of novelty and personal significance upon any number of readings and in any spatial or temporal context. In this essay, I have intended to express my personal response, upon several readings in relatively quick succession, to one of Frost’s most famous and masterful poetic texts, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” so as to highlight some of the ways in which one of Frost’s master works can be scrutinized. This type of poetic analysis can prove extremely gratifying to the reader, as unpacking the metaphoric and otherwise wit-infused language of a skilled poetic work resonates on a basic human level. Furthermore, this characteristic enables one to arrive upon a concept (or set) that can be usefully applied to one’s own life, and which is fundamentally dynamic rather than static and thus, ultimately worthy of returning to at a later point, as “it can never lose its sense of meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”
Nitchie, George W., Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1960.
Sergeant, Elizabeth S., The Trial by Existence. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.
Thompson, Lawrence, Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.
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