Forms and Devices
Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer in 1923 that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would be his “best bid for remembrance.” Frost’s instincts were correct, but like Walt Whitman’s famous “Captain, My Captain,” Frost’s poem is often remembered for all the wrong reasons. Part of its appeal, surely, is its simple and accessible narrative, which contains only sixteen words that are more than one syllable. In addition, Frost’s end-stopped lines, accentuated by the insistent rhyme, make the poem easy to remember.
Frost, born in California, worked hard at developing the persona for which he is now mostly known—the farmer-poet from New England, the writer of Currier & Ives miniatures. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is Frost’s most memorable “genre study” in his “New England” manner, though examination of the poem reveals nothing distinctively regional about it at all. Despite Frost’s reputation as a regionalist, his lyrics are generally so underdescribed that they tend toward allegory or parable. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is an example of Frost’s art in this respect: It gains its power by suggestion and implication, in its stark understatement, powerfully conveying a depth and fullness of human experience. It is, as Frost remarked, “loaded with ulteriority.”
Criticism of the poem has generally treated it allegorically or biographically, and it is easy to see why. Like “The Road Not Taken,” another frequently misread lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is almost earnest in its simplicity, though close attention to the text shows it to be more crafty than at first it appears. For example, as is often the case in Frost’s first-person lyrics, the speaker of the poem is not to be mistaken for the poet himself, nor is the “I” in a Frost lyric always credible or aware of the complexity of his reflections.
Thus, in this poem, the speaker indicates that his horse thinks it “queer” for them to stop, though it is evident that whatever the horse may think or feel, it is the speaker who projects his own anxiety onto the horse. The poem is constructed as the speaker’s reflections of the event, and the first line indicates the speaker’s sense that the woods are owned. Thus, some nameless feeling of impropriety or perhaps social violation keeps him from his ease. Consequently, his abrupt dismissal of the wood’s allure and his lofty response that he has “promises to keep,” though idealistic and possibly true, sounds like a dodge. Mistaking the speaker for Frost himself, one could miss the author’s implied criticism of the speaker’s sentimentality—who avoids the issue of why he stops by taking refuge in rhetoric and cliché.
To read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as simply a story about a weary traveler longing for the comforts of home, or even to allegorize it as the journey of Everyman, is to miss the subtle qualities that identify it as a Frost lyric. For one thing, Frost balances the onward rhythmic pull of the verse against the obvious stasis of the poetic scene itself: The speaker never arrives, nor really leaves; he is simply always stopping. Frost also arranges the natural scene so as to heighten the drama of the encounter and to reveal its symbolic density. Finally, Frost’s sense of dramatic and contextual irony undercut the simplicity of the narrative. After all, despite the speaker’s confident assurance about where he is going and the miles he has yet to go, his restiveness (projected onto the horse) and the vagueness of the future “promises” he must keep reveal his assurance to be, in a word, a fiction. This is an important point for Frost. Frost celebrated the necessity of imaginative extravagance in human affairs, but he knew well enough that the imagination traps as well as frees.