How would you identify tone and use it to find theme and meaning?

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The word "tone" is used in literary terms to describe the attitude of the writer towards his subject or theme—the attitude we, as the reader, detect while reading. Robert Frost himself was rather irritated by the continued emphasis on critical analysis of this particular poem, which he felt to be very straightforward. Nevertheless, we as readers can identify more than one potential tone in the work.

The picture painted is, on the one hand, a "lovely" one, filled with the calm of falling snow and the pensive mood of the speaker, pausing for no reason other than to watch the woods "fill up with snow." In this sense, then, the tone might be pensive, contemplative, and peaceful. We can imagine the woods as a beautiful place, something the man wants to appreciate even though he has "miles to go" yet in his task. The horse thinks it "queer," but we, seeing the beauty of the woods, may not.

On the other hand, there is also an element of intrigue in this poem. What exactly is the man's task? Why does he still have so far to go and why is he traveling at night? What has driven him to pause even though his horse finds this so uncharacteristic? These questions might lead us to sense another tone in the poem that has elements of uncertainty and mystery.

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Literary critics and analysts agree that "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" is the picture of simplicity, yet, at the same time, an object of great complexity.

"What appears to be 'simple' is shown to be not really simple" (John T. Ogilvie, "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost’s Poetry").

Some call "Stopping by Woods" poetic perfection, with perfect unification of emotion, thought, and words, that embodies Frost's aesthetics (theory) of poetry.

"A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words" (Robert Frost, Robert Frost: The Man and His Work).

Nonetheless, there is some disagreement on the nature of the woods in the poem. Are they malevolent and threatening because of the word "dark"? What sort of allure does their mystery have for the poetic speaker and traveler? Are the woods symbolic of something else altogether?

There is also disagreement on the tone of the poem. This would dismay Frost since he held the belief that the right word in the right place conveyed exactly the right emotion and tone. His belief was that poetry is "words that become deeds." If the tone, emotion, or meaning of the words defy agreement, then there can be no agreement on the deeds the words provoke. Frost would find this provoking because it flies in the face of (contradicts) his efforts as a poet.

The first task in analyzing Frost's poem in order to understand it is to determine the tone of the poem. Tone--which is the emotion or attitude of the poetic speaker toward the subject of the poem--is determined largely by words and sounds. Sounds are the phonetic units that comprise words. An illustration of this to consider is the repeated /t/, /d/, or /p/ sounds, as in put, don't, not, tut, bit, dip. These can produce a biting, rapid, perhaps angry tone. In contrast, repeated /m/, /n/ or /v/ sounds, as in man, noon, moon, velvet, home, can produce a steadier, calmer, more tranquil tone. Thus, both words themselves and their component sounds are the components of poetic tone.

What is the tone of "Stopping by the Woods"? Some words and their sounds that might indicate tone are these:

whose

woods

think / know

house

village

though

see / watch

snow

little horse

queer

stop

farmhouse

between

frozen lake

evening

year

darkest

harness / bells

a shake

ask

sound's [sound is]

sweep

easy wind

downy flake

lovely

deep

dark

promises

miles to go

sleep

One of the first things we notice from this list of words is that many arouse pleasant associations. This is especially true about snow-related words for someone who is a New Englander by rearing or by long-time residency. Frost wrote this poem in 1922 while farming in Vermont and teaching at what is now Middlebury College. He had previously purchased a farm in the hinterlands of New Hampshire thus was a well-seasoned New England farmer. Since the New England mentality toward winter snow and dark woods is an integral part of the poem, let's examine what that is for a moment.

NEW ENGLAND: SNOW AND SNOW-FILLED WOODS

The stereotype--or perhaps it is an archetype--prevalent in fairy tales and fantasy stories is that dark and deep woods are dangerous, scary, and malevolent places. This is accentuated in snowy seasons by images of wolves, freezing wanderers, and blinding blizzards. Yet keep in mind that this image of danger is offset by fairies who live peacefully in friendly woods where animals eat from princesses' hands and peasants live happily and contentedly.

Frost's expression of the New England mentality toward dark, deep, and snow-filled woods has at its roots a place where all are snug in farmhouses or cozy village homes; a place where all travel in security with the safety of a favorite, contented horse pulling reliable sleighs. This mentality views wintery woods as friendly, peaceful places. It is not a mentality that casts--under normal circumstances--woods as dangerous, malevolent places. New Englanders enjoy watching the dark, deep woods that surround them quietly, almost magically, fill with snow, watching almost mesmerized as the snow creeps higher and higher up the tree bark or fence post.

For a New Englander, like Robert Frost was from 1885 onward, winter snow is like a warm comforter descending on the land and on one's soul for a long, peaceful slumber after a year of hard work and toil. Falling snow filling a dark wood at the evening of the day is a quieting sight that lights the eyes with a gentle glow and warms the heart with thoughts of a later flower-strewn spring coming at the end of winter quietude and slumber. The feeling produced is dreaminess, and critic George Montiero, Professor Emeritus of Brown University, uses the word "dreamy" to describe the poetic tone of the poem. He speaks of the poet's "dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations" (George Montiero, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance).

MEANING OF WORDS AND TONE

Returning to our list of tonal words, let's consider the synonymous meanings associated with some of the words. Do these meanings fit with the New England idea of dark and deep woods, filling with snow, or with the stereotypical/ archetypical idea of a dark, deep, and malevolent wood?

whose -- identity, familiarity, friendliness

woods -- lush, peaceful

think / know -- mental associations /certainty

house -- comfort, warmth, desired

village -- community, safety, gathering

see / watch -- look at, witness, participate, attend to

snow -- peaceful blanket of white

little -- diminutive, gentleness

horse -- helper, animal friend

queer -- unusual, out of the ordinary

stop -- come to rest, wait, cease motion

farmhouse -- welcoming and lively place, source of goodness, warmth

between -- something on either hand, routes to both

frozen lake -- wonderland, ice skating

evening -- quietude, rest from glaring light, warm fires

darkest evening of the year -- solstice, turning point, mystery

harness bells -- sounds of leather and bells, joyful season

a shake -- playfulness, mild protest

ask -- friendly relations, comfortable inquiry

only other sound -- quiet, stillness, surrounding silence

sweep of easy wind -- hush of wind whispering gently across tree branches and snow

[and] downy flake -- gentle soft murmur of snow accumulating on snow and on branches and fence posts

lovely -- pleasing, pleasant, appealing

deep -- endless, continuing, hidden mysteries and wonders

dark -- secret, hidden, not brazen

promises -- assurances to oneself or someone else of something to be

miles to go -- journey, life to live, accomplishments to achieve

sleep -- rest, stillness

The tone that emerges from the synonymous meanings of the words is a tone based on community and friendly feelings; happy associations with snow and woods--like harness bells--not fearful associations. The meaning of the words lead us to conclude that the tone of "Stopping by Woods" is a dreamy, comforting, peaceful tone that reflects the New England mentality toward woods filling with a comforting winter blanket of snow that gives rest to the land and the soul, with comforting and safe farmhouse, village, horse, bells, and sleigh close at hand.

SOUNDS AND TONE

Let's examine what the sounds of phonetic intonations within the poem are and determine what, if anything, they reveal about the poetic tone. When Frost taught poetry at Amherst College, a principle he formulated and taught was "the sound of sense." This principle advocated incorporating the sounds of words into the composition of poetry. This principle was derived from his own poetic aesthetic; it was built upon his own use of sounds to structure the emotional and meaningful expression of his poetry (it is a tried and true principle employed by Renaissance poets such as Edmund Spenser as well).

The first thing that stands out is the abundance of the sound of /s/; not a line is without the /s/ and its "sibilant" sound. The /s/ here imitates the sound of snow and the hush of silence: "The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The /s/ forms the underpinning for the tone. The other sounds build upon this and create the full poetic tone. It will be interesting to compare the tone created by phonetics (sounds) to the tone created by word meanings.

After the hushed, soothing tone of /s/, what is most noticeable is the open, or rounded, vowels and diphthongs /o/ /oo/ /ow/ /ou/ /or/ /ar/. These are alternated with the close, or bright, vowel sounds of /e/ /i/. The tone created by these gentle vowel sounds is that of calm and dreaminess.

This dreaminess is given a syncopated counterpoint with the crisp, plosive consonants /t/ /p/ /d/ /k/ /st/. Dreaminess carried too far may become mere boredom. Crisp consonants prevent this from happening. The other consonants that appear, /n/ /w/ /l/ /h/ /m/ /qu/ /z/ /y/ /f/, add reinforcement to the calm, hushed, and soothing tone created by Frost's phonetic choices.

To build sounds into the structure of the poem, and to use structure to confirm the tone, each stanza emphasizes a new sound that was initiated in line 3 of the preceding stanza. This creates both a linked structure and a linked rhyme (linking is called concatonation).

Stanza 2 adds /or/ /ar/ /ear/ /ro/ initiated in stanza 1.3

Stanza 3 adds /ak/ /sk/ initiated in stanza 2.3

Stanza 4 adds /eep/ initiated in stanza 3.3 and /long i/ initiated in 1.1

Tone of the Poem

Frost's implementation of his principle of "the sound of sense" very deliberately creates a specific and readily perceived tone that is calm, dreamy, hushed, and soothing. This tone, built through phonetic sound, corresponds with the dreamy, comforting, and peaceful tone created by the word meanings.

We must conclude that the tone of the poem is dreamy, comforting, soothing, calm, and hushed. This tonal description coincides with the New England mentality of peacefully blanketing snow and completely contrasts with the archetypical idea of malevolent, dark, deep, and snowy woods. This means that the thematic meaning of the poem will coincide with the tone and will not align with dangerousness or fearfulness because tone undergirds thematic meaning; tone does not undermine it. Tone builds theme; it does not contradict theme.

ELEMENTS OF THE POEM NARRATIVE

There are five primary elements in the poem narrative: the man, the little horse, the villager, snowy woods, and miles to go before sleep. One element often overlooked is the little horse. It is often seen as an incidental, as scenic dressing of no great importance. Yet when Frost talked about writing the poem, he spoke of it as a poem "about the snowy evening and the little horse." For Frost, the little horse was an integral part of the man's journey and experience.

LITTLE HORSE

The little horse is the man's safety during the snowfall. He transports the man through the snowfall to a warm haven. Apparently, he and the man pass this spot--or other spots very much like it--on a regular basis. If this were a novelty, the horse might understand stopping to get the bearings of a new and unfamiliar place. He shakes his head, rings his bells, and tosses his harness as if to ask, "Why are we stopping here? This is no place new to be gazing at. Is there some mistake?"

The little horse and man represent two approaches to the same experience. The man wants to dreamily gaze in wonder, while the horse finds nothing in the familiar scene to attract undue attention. There is no sense of irritation, anxiety, or disgust in the little horse's speculated reaction. There is just matter-of-fact questioning about a possible mistake. So, one approach to seeing the scene is to see it and find nothing notable and pass on, which is what the little horse wants to do. The alternate approach is to watch it, to put other thoughts aside for a time and watch the scene. The horse observes the man's response to the scene. Therefore there is a community of observing between the man and the horse that forms a triangle: the man watches the scene; the horse observes the man; the man observes the horse. If the landowner were nearby, the triangle might expand to an encircling community of observing.

MAN

The man thinks of and alludes to a reciprocal watching: if the owner were nearby, he might watch the man watching the snowy woodland scene. No one is nearby, so the man's watching goes unobserved except by the little horse. Yet the mere mention of the villager landowner creates the awareness of a larger community of reciprocity that the man--and the horse--are part of. In this case, the absence of a representative of community reinforces the existence of community: This man is not a "loner" even though he is at the present moment alone. We can deduce from this that loneliness and despair are not themes, although community and unity are themes.

With poetic minimalism, Frost tells us about the man. He is industrious and engaged in some gainful activity. If this were not so, the little horse would not be surprised at the unexpected halt to watch the commonplace New England scene. The man is kind, gentle, and patient. If this were not so, he would speak to and about the bell-shaking little horse in an entirely different way. The man has importance in life and has goals to attain. If this were not so, he would neither have promises to keep nor care that he kept them. He would not have miles--literal or metaphoric miles--to traverse before he could seek his own rest.

VILLAGER

If the landowner were there, he might participate with the man in experiencing the woodsy, snowy scene by watching him watch his field and woods fill with snow. The little horse stands in contrast to what the owner does because the owner is not there within eye-shot: the horse is part of the observing community, while the absent owner is part of the implied extended community.

MILES TO GO AND SLEEP

promises, n.: assurances to oneself or someone else of something to be

If the snow-filled wood metaphorically represents the land sleeping after the seasons of hard labor and toil, then the man has seasons of labor and toil to go before he reaches his winter's rest; he has a long life to live, having promises/ assurances to others to fulfill before his life's work is through. In this case, while he may be weary and longing for the blanket of white peace and comfort for his final rest in death, it is more likely, considering the tone of the poem, that he is affirming the path of life he is on and the promises he has made to himself about what he will attain and the promises he has made to others in his community, like the little horse and the absent landowner-villager, about what he will do or be for them.

THEME: Affirming the path of life he is on and the promises he has made.

FROST'S VIEW OF NEW ENGLAND AS FOUND IN "NEW HAMPSHIRE"

In "New Hampshire" (1922) (New Hampshire, 1923), Frost leads us to believe that he is chronicling a life in New England that "goes so unterribly" rather than chronicling a metaphoric dangerous and dark wood that is fearful, foreboding, or ominous.

How are we to write
The Russian novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?
There is the pinch from which our only outcry
In literature to date is heard to come.
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.
[...]
For all her mountains fall a little short,
Her people not quite short enough for Art,
She's still New Hampshire, a most restful state.

"Stopping by Woods" was written immediately after Frost finished "New Hampshire," a long poem that gives his view of his adopted land and his impressions of the criticisms other had about New Hampshire. As Frost tells it, he had worked all night long on finishing "New Hampshire," and dawn broke just as he finished. Going out into the breaking light, he had the idea for a new poem "about the snowy evening and the little horse." He wrote it quickly, in "a few minutes without strain," as if he had "had a hallucination." After "Stopping by Woods" was published in his 1923 collection, Frost said it was "my best bid for remembrance."

In it, all the different elements come together--rather like the man's circle of community--and confirm each other. When this biographical history of how the poem came to be written is combined with the tone, as determined by word meaning and word sounds, and when these are combined with the nature of the woods, as revealed by word meaning, and when these are combined with the theme that is revealed, affirming the path of life he is on, then the poem comes together as a unified whole--with "the sound of sense"--in which each element builds and confirms the others to develop the poem's meaning and theme.

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