Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
In order to understand the evening theme in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," we need to understand the time when Frost is setting the poem and what the symbolic significance of the time is. There are two parts relevant to the time when the poem is set: (1) evening and (2) winter solstice ("darkest evening of the year").
Evening as Setting
When trying to understand the evening theme, two points are critical to address when analyzing the evening setting. First, Frost says "evening" twice in the poem. He says it once in the title and once again at the end of the second stanza, as seen in the above quotation. Second, a very important step in understanding the evening theme is understanding the definition of "evening and how "evening" differentiates from "night."
Definition of Evening in Setting
Defining "evening" can be a little difficult because it is one of the modern English words that has undergone a subtle change in definition. The original English definition for "evening" was "'grow towards night,'" as evening extended from late afternoon to dark. Some dictionaries still define evening as "late afternoon until nightfall." Most commonly, though, the contemporary definition of evening is "the latter part of the day and early part of the night" (extending "evening" into dark hours). This is the one that is most applicable to the poem, since it encompasses a period during which activity still occurs before bedtime in a middle, dark part of night.
The time of the setting, then, is anytime between sunset and the man's bedtime. Since he still has much to do, "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep," we might reasonably conclude that the evening is young still: He has much time ahead of him before bedtime.
Evening Setting Stated Twice
Since Frost mentions evening twice, the first time being most prominently in the title, he is directing attention away from "night," even though the "evening" is dark, indeed "darkest." Based on his (a) idea for the poem, the (b) tone of the poem and the (c) thematic meaning of the woods (which is not the archetypical "dark," wild, dangerous woods theme), we can infer the reason Frost stresses "evening."
We know from his own words that he wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as a narrative about "the snowy evening and the little horse" immediately after successfully completing the long poem "New Hampshire" pointing out New Hampshire's virtues. We know the poem came to him like "a hallucination" while enjoying the sunrise after working all night on "New Hampshire." We know the tone of the poem--based on vocabulary and phonetics [see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Summary: "Identifying Tone and Defining Woods to Find Theme and Meaning."]--is friendly, calm, tranquil. We know from critical analysis of the woods theme [see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Themes: "Critical Analysis of Woods Theme."] that the woods are a civilized, friendly, mesmerizing place conducive to pleasant reverie about community and willing promises within communities.
From these elements, we can infer that the emphasis on "evening," despite its darkness, functions to turn our attention away from the stereotypes and archetypes of "night" and "dark." Frost turns our attention toward an understanding of evening that will coincide with:
- the epiphany of his idea,
- the tone he constructed,
- and the meaning of the woods theme.
What Is Evening Representing?
Evening is the restful time between the rigors of day and the refreshing sleep of night when we can devote our attention to community and to promises to our community. During the laborious hours of day, our attentions are focused on labor, performance, earning our keep. During the hours of evening, even dark hours of evening, our attention is turned toward home, family, friends, community obligations of various sorts (e.g., choirs to sing in, committee meetings to attend, theater performances to enjoy). "Evening" tells us, twice, that Frost isn't presenting a dark aspect but a unifying, comforting aspect of being and living.
The "darkest evening of the year" is winter solstice, a solar-planetary event when Earth is furthest away from the Sun because of the sideways tilt of Earth's axis in its rotation. The "darkest evening of the year" alludes to the fact that at winter solstice, darkness comes earlier than on any other day. In norther climes, particularly the mountainous regions of New England, this can mean, incredibly, that darkness falls in some places as early as 3 p.m., which fits our definition of "evening." Early darkness on the solstice constitutes the darkest evening of the year.
Though Frost's poem is set on the darkest evening, there are two things that stand out and help to illuminate the evening theme.
One is that winter solstice darkness heralds the coming of longer days and shorter nights. The lengthening of days is immediate and almost always noticeable by almost all.
- The second point is that on this particular night, it is snowing.
A particular phenomenon of snowfall in darkness is that the diffuse reflectivity of snow--its albedo--causes snowfall and freshly snowy surfaces to add a glow to the surrounding night. This effect can be quite surprising to those who have never seen it. It seems the dark of night has suddenly become bright as day. Frost makes a point of there being snowfall. First, he tells right in the title that it is a snowy evening, thus a reflective, glowingly bright evening. Then, the only activity he gives the man (aside from thinking about others) is to watch the woods "fill up with snow."
The impact of the falling snow (blizzards being harder snowfall in fierce winds, the albedo is modified) on the scene is to make the "darkest night of the year" bright and to make the woods "lovely, dark and deep" glow with mystery and wonder. The snowy evening setting removes the archetype or stereotype of "dark" from any association with the poem while presenting the paradoxes that (1) it is the winter solstice thus the darkest evening and that (2) the woods are "dark and deep." But, tonight, as the man and little horse stop before the woods filling "up with snow," the glow of light--and all that the light archetype symbolizes--dispels the darkness leaving only loveliness: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."
Based upon the above analysis, it is possible to identify the meaning of the evening theme. First of all, we know it is not insignificant that the setting is evening, nor is it insignificant that the evening is snowy. These two aspects of the setting separate the poem from the symbolism of night and darkness, even though dark has mention in the poem. Secondly, we know the evening is aglow in the reflective light of the falling and accumulating snow. This glow further separates the meaning of the poem from the symbols of dark and night. We can draw the conclusion that, rather than relating to fear, melancholy, pessimism (even death, as some suggest), this poem is about loveliness, optimism, peaceful contemplation and promises made to self and others: Perhaps the man would like to linger longer in transfixed reverie but, as both he and the little horse know, there are places to go and things to do.
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.
The evening theme ties the surrounding snowy glow together with the solstice's and woods' darkness to create a new light that equates with optimism and the opportunity to be and to do and to keep promises. This theme is presented as an early end of the day's toil--early because of the snow and the earlier darkness; an early return to the bosom of family and friends; a long evening of food, pleasure, revitalization and rest. These pleasures are the man's compensation for having to cut short his mesmerized contemplation of the glowing loveliness before him. These are also a solstice's long, pleasing preparation for the miles to go and promises to keep as the days lengthen and become warmer and sunnier.