The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is easily one of the most famous, as well as one of the most anthologized, of Robert Frost’s poems. It consists of four quatrains that have the following rhyme scheme: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. The poem’s central narrative is simple, and the scene is understated, even stark, bare of elaboration or detail. A traveler pauses late one snowy evening to admire the woods by which he passes. He reflects that the owner of the woods, who lives in the village, will not see him stopping to “watch his woods fill up with snow.”
The speaker interrupts his reflections by imagining that his “little horse must think it queer” to stop without a farmhouse nearby on the “darkest evening of the year.” In the third stanza, the speaker expands this conceit, suggesting that anxiety over the untoward action causes the horse to shake his harness bells “To ask if there is some mistake.” Then, by way of contrast, the speaker notes that “the only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.”
Something about the woods compels the speaker’s interest, and by the poem’s end, as most critics note, one has the sense that there is more to these woods than meets the eye. In the last verse, the speaker acknowledges that the “woods are lovely, dark and deep.” He seems reluctant, however, to pursue this insight more deeply, since he immediately observes that he...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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...
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"Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" was first published in 1923, when the pace of social growth was in the process of breaking out into a gallop. In all areas of life, new ways of looking at established ideas suddenly rose up and challenged tradition. In literature, old formal structures were redefined by the writings of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot; in art, Dadaism was a short-lived revolution but Cubism arrived to stay; mainstream architects started using the revolutionary ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright; and musicians including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet invented America's indigenous music, jazz. The ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein were not just the business of intellectuals anymore, but were discussed openly at dinner tables and in magazines on the grocer's rack. This sudden breakout pace of social change would naturally make people uncomfortable if they were used to slower times. Many readers probably felt like the narrator of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" who takes a few quiet moments with nature before going on to fulfill obligations.
Often, discussions about the flood of new ideas in the 1920s will focus attention on the end of World War I in 1919. More than any war that came before it, this war made people question the value of human existence, as advances in long-range weaponry and in vehicles to shift troops quickly across long distances, and the first use of airplanes for combat,...
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"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is written in iambic tetrameter. "Iambic" means that each metrical foot contains two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. "Tetrameter" means that each line contains four metrical feet. So a poem written in iambic tetrameter would contain a total of eight syllables in each line. This idea will become clearer if we scan a line, or diagram the meter:
Of easy wind and downy flake.
When the line is scanned, it will look like this:
Of eas / y wind / and down / y flake.
Such metrical patterns generally make poetry sound more musical. Occasionally, a line will vary from the established pattern, which often emphasizes the importance of that line.
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" also relies on rhyme to achieve some of its music. For the first three stanzas, the rhyme scheme is consistent. Its pattern is aaba bbcb cede. The fourth stanza, however, rhymes every line with d. This means that in the first stanza, lines one, two, and four rhyme with each other, with line three ("here") seeming odd. However, in stanza two, lines one, two, and four rhyme with "here," while the rhyme on line three, "lake," is picked up in stanza three. Such a pattern links the stanzas together and indicates that the ideas contained in the stanzas are strongly related.
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Compare and Contrast
1923: The Soviet Union came into existence, expanding the Communist empire established by the Russian revolution of 1917.
1945: With the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the Soviet Union became one of the world's two super-powers, along with the United States.
1990: The Soviet Union disbanded after member nations demanded independence.
Today: Most former Soviet Union countries belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States: civil wars over property rights of ethnic factions break out frequently.
1923: Approximately 42 percent of the land in the United States was farmland; approximately 30 percent of the population lived on farms, down from 41 percent at the turn of the century.
1940: 46.8 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland; 23.2 percent of the population lived on farms.
1960: 49.5 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland; 8.7 percent of the population lived on farms.
1980: 44.8 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland: 2.7 percent of the population lived on farms.
Today: Machinery and bio-engineering make it possible to grow greater amounts of produce in smaller spaces with fewer employees.
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Topics for Further Study
Write a short story about the owner of the woods finding this poem's speaker. Why is he out in the woods, instead of at his house in the village? Would he be angry? Would he befriend the poem's speaker?
Describe the horse's life: why is he so uneasy about being out in the woods, with no farmhouse around? What does he do day after day, if this is so unsettling?
Why is this poem's last line repeated? What does this tell you about what has gone on before?
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An audio record titled "Robert Frost Reads the Poems of Robert Frost" was released in 1957 by Decca.
A video titled Robert Frost, part of the Poetry America Series, is available through AIMS Media.
Robert Frost, a videocassette from volume 3 of the Voices and Visions Series, is available from Mystic Fire Video.
A 1958 interview with Robert Frost is available on video cassette from Zenger.
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What Do I Read Next?
Henry David Thoreau's Walden is an American classic and was one of Frost's favorite books, which he reread often throughout his lifetime. Like this poem, it deals with a time the author left society for the New England forest, except that in Thoreau's case it was not for a few minutes but for a few years. New editions have consistently been published since the first printing in 1854.
To explore the directions that more experimental poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams were taking poetry into in the 1920s, see Stanley K. Coffman's Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry. Published in 1951 and reprinted in 1972, this book scarcely mentions Frost, but gives theoretical and biographical information about his peers that makes Frost's individualism come into focus.
In Robert Frost Himself, Stanley Burnshaw draws on personal reflections of conversations, documents, letters, and the author's poems to present his biography. Much of this is thorough and interesting, although sometimes Burnshaw goes a little too far to rescue Frost's image from remarks made by the poets official biographer, Lawrence Thompson. Published in 1986.
Cleanth Brooks was one of this century's most respected literary critics and theorists. His 1939 book Modern Poetry and the Tradition, revised in 1967, explains the complexity of Frost's poetry and places it in the context of the poets who preceded him...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cox, James M., Editor, Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1962.
Cox, James M., "Robert Frost and the Edge of the Clearing," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 1959, pp. 73-88.
Frost, Robert, Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, Library of America, 1995.
Gerber, Philip L., Critical Essays on Robert Frost, G.K. Hall, 1982.
Kemp, John C., Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 273.
Ogilvie, John T., "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter 1959, pp. 64-76.
Potter, James L., Robert Frost Handbook, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Thompson, Lawrance, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph 1915-1938, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
For Further Study
Cramer, Jefrey S., Robert Frost Among His Poems, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 1996.
Cramer gives a brief but thorough background of almost every poem Frost has written. An indispensable guide.
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1983.
Not as fun or interesting to read as Geoffrey Perrett's book listed below, but full of more factual...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
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