Whatever “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means, it is evident that the poem makes meaning; it has suffered many designs upon it, and even Frost thought that critics had pressed it too much for meaning. Nevertheless, the poem contains tensions and oppositions that are characteristic of Frost’s symbolic terrain in general and of his poetics as well.
Woods are a pervasive image in Frost’s poetry, evident in his earliest poems as well as in his last. Dark and unowned, woods are a metaphor of life’s wildness, and Frost contrasts them, generally, with places owned by human beings and made artful by their craft. Domesticated spaces such as pastures, clearings, even homes, show the presence of human beings; in these places they make themselves at home, spiritually and physically. In “The Constant Symbol,” Frost observes that “strongly spent is synonymous with kept.” The human spirit must risk and spend itself, paradoxically, in order to fulfill its nature.
Poets risk themselves and their skill as they create a poem out of the wildness of language. Consequently, readers of Frost’s verse, like the speaker stopping to watch the woods fill with snow, find themselves in a typically Frostian place: The poem is a partly wild, partly domesticated place, demanding risk and commitment, involvement and acceptance. Poems, like woods, are lovely, dark, and deep, but only if one will risk entering them more deeply and will let them work upon the imagination.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” then, directs one’s attention to that moment when one stops, or at least pauses, between two equally delicious possibilities, and this insistence upon human choice is characteristic of Frost. The “woods” that are “lovely, dark and deep” echo and suggest other sorts of “woods”—the “woulds,” the limits, conventions, and oughts by which poets and readers alike live and write. Fenced around with social convention and imaginative need, facing wild woods and dark choices, one must balance and choose.
Frost commented that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a “commitment to convention.” It is also a commitment to risk and to extravagance, especially imaginative extravagance, in order to possess something aesthetically—the woods, for example—that one cannot possess or “own” in any other way. The poem is about patterns and predictability, about rhythms and the complex ways human beings respond to patterns. It contrasts the horse’s habituated responses to the human, if less predictable, response of the speaker. The human being must be able to break conventions and rhythms as well as create them. The poem is, finally, about more abstract conventions and rhythms, those of knowledge and understanding, or those of history and the movement of time; it is about how one discovers beauty within these rhythms. It also is about smaller patterns—social manners and expectations, habits enforced by hunger and sleep. The poem is about the boundaries and limits within which human beings live and—Frost’s denials to the contrary—the limits within which one must die.