How would you write a critical analysis of the "woods" theme?

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To examine the "woods" theme in Robert Frost's poem, it would be useful to first consider that the poet uses them both in the literal sense and metaphorically.

To structure a critical analysis, examining the work stanza by stanza would be a good organizational approach. In the first two stanzas, for instance, the speaker stops by a patch of woods that he thinks belongs to a man who lives in the nearby village. Readers understand that he is alone, with only his horse for company as he pauses between the woods and a frozen lake. "The darkest evening of the year" connotes the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It could be a metaphor for the "dark night of the soul" which is, according to Christian theology, a time of spiritual despair. The woods would complement this idea, as woods are a place where a person can become lost.

In the final stanza, the speaker begins moving again, understanding that he cannot, metaphorically speaking, take the time to wander in the woods, in a spiritual sense, because he has responsibilities that require him to move on from whatever doubts and despair he might be tempted to explore.

Overall, a sound approach to exploring the "woods" theme would be to discuss how Frost develops the metaphor by moving from the literal to the figurative.

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Robert Frost contended that too much effort was given by critics to finding deeply symbolic interpretations of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which is about, in his words, "the snowy evening and the little horse." When he was able to, he personally oversaw the editing of "Stopping by Woods" to ensure that the woods were "lovely, dark and deep" instead of "lovely, dark, and deep." The latter punctuation (lovely, dark, and deep) gives as much emphasis to "dark" as to "lovely," encouraging an association between the woods and symbolic darkness. This is apparently an association Frost tried to discourage. The former punctuation, "lovely, dark and deep" expresses loveliness as the primary quality of the woods, woods that are lovely while being both dark and deep or lovely because both dark and deep.

The loveliness Frost attributes to the woods contrasts with the idea of woods that are a dangerous, unknown, wild, risky place. The loveliness of the woods, and the equanimity with which the man stops before them in a contemplative reverie, suggests knowledge of the woods, familiarity, and tranquility, which oppose the unknown, danger and wildness.

The stereotype and the archetype of woods "dark and deep" derives in large part from fairy and fantasy tales in which the woods indeed are dark, dangerous, unknown, risky and wild. Yet there is also a countering archetype in fairy and fantasy tales of woods dark and deep as sheltering, protecting, friendly places where fairies dwell in safety and princesses feed wild animals from their hands. It becomes necessary, in view of these dichotomous archetypes, to find indicators to the archetype, if an archetype is intended, (1) within the text or (2) in the circumstances of the composition of the text. These same indicators--text and specifics of composition--point the way to identifying the theme of woods and to identifying whether an archetype is employed or defied.

WITHIN THE TEXT

Varying critical theories approach analysis of literature from differing bases. For instance, some critical approaches focus attention on the text alone while others include attention to the author's biographical information and still others include social and cultural background.

When analyzing texts, while varying critical theories may be applied and different critical approaches taken, it continues to be true that each individual work may present a unique symbol or representation that differs from the archetype or stereotype associated with a symbolic object, for example, a work may present a unique thematic symbol associated with woods dark and deep. With this in mind, it is fair to say that the woods Frost presents may defy or contradict the archetype and stereotype of woods dark and deep that is prevalent in literature in the same way that some fairy and fantasy tales contradict the archetype of woods as dangerous, wild places.

When "Stopping by Woods" is analyzed from the text alone, the poetic tone of the poem--as derived from word choice and meaning and from the component phonetic sounds of words--contradicts the idea of dangerous, wild, risky woods and confirms the idea of friendly lovely woods that are dark and deep in their loveliness. The tone, as derived from a close analysis of the text, is dreamy, calm, tranquil, unfearful. [For a full analysis of tone in "Stopping by Woods," see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Summary: "Identifying Tone and Defining Woods to Find Theme and Meaning."]

When analysis of "Stopping by Woods" incorporates biographical information about Frost, a surprising agreement between textual tone and biography emerges. Specifically, what is known about Frost's opinion of central New England (Vermont and New Hampshire) and what is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of "Stopping by Woods" confirms the idea of the woods as a friendly, tranquil place, which contradicts the idea of the woods as a risky, unknown, wild, dangerous place.

RELEVANT FROST BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Frost's Opinions in "New Hampshire"

Two aspects of the circumstances surrounding Robert Frost's composition of "Stopping by Woods" are especially important for understanding the woods theme. Remember that each unique poem might assign a unique symbolism or representation to an element so that it differs from traditional archetypes and/or stereotypes. The first biographical aspect of important relevance is the opinion of central New England Frost had just finished expressing in the poem "New Hampshire." The second aspect of important relevance is the time and place of inspiration for and the ease of execution of "Stopping by Woods."

Published in the 1923 collection New Hampshire, which won Frost his first Pulitzer Prize, "New Hampshire" is a lengthy poem that expresses Frost's opinion of central New England in the trope of having something to buy or sell: "Not even New Hampshire farms are much for sale." This odd propinquity of having nothing to sell set aside, he says that New Hampshire and Vermont are the best two states in the Union.

[New Hampshire's] one of the two best states in the Union.
Vermont's the other. And the two have been
Yoke-fellows in the sap-yoke from of old
In many Marches.
[...]
Anything I can say about New Hampshire
Will serve almost as well about Vermont,
Excepting that they differ in their mountains.
The Vermont mountains stretch extended straight;
New Hampshire mountains curl up in a coil.

For Frost, speaking about New Hampshire is just about the same as speaking about Vermont ("Anything I can say about New Hampshire / Will serve almost as well about Vermont"). Frost had been living and farming in New Hampshire before moving in 1920 to Vermont where he was living when he wrote "New Hampshire" and "Stopping by Woods" in 1922. A useful idea inferred from "New Hampshire" is that the mountains are not wild: "The more the sensibilitist I am / The more I seem to want my mountains wild." If they were wild, he would not need to want them changed to be wild. Frost says that, on the contrary, the mountains are restful: "For all her mountains fall a little short, / She's still New Hampshire, a most restful state."

Frost is so subtle in his poetic expressions that many things can be inferred beyond what is openly stated in his seemingly straightforward, conversational verse. In his defense of "little men" who, Emerson said, taunt "the lofty land" of New Hampshire, Frost's discourse about New Hampshire mountains offers a case in point about his subtlety that has a direct relationship to the woods theme. Frost says he would elevate the mountains of New Hampshire:

If I must choose which I would elevate
The people or the already lofty mountains,
I'd elevate the already lofty mountains.

When forced to choose, if he wants to "elevate" New Hampshire's mountains, then he wants to change them. If he wants his "mountains wild," then they are not wild now. New Hampshire mountains are covered with woods. If the mountains are not wild, the woods are not "wild" either. Another significant opinion that Frost expresses is that the people of New Hampshire, and by inference, Vermont, have no "cause for misery" because "life goes so unterribly."

I don't know what to say about the people.
For Art's sake one could almost wish them worse
Rather than better. How are we to write
The Russian novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?
[...]
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.
[...]
On nothing worse than too much luck and comfort.
[...]
The only fault I find with old New Hampshire
Is that her mountains aren't quite high enough.
[...]
How high I'd thrust the peaks in summer snow
To tap the upper sky and draw a flow
Of frosty night air on the vale below
Down from the stars to freeze the dew as starry.
The more the sensibilitist I am
The more I seem to want my mountains wild;
[...]
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.

Frost's Composition of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

One night, Frost worked the whole night finishing "New Hampshire" for publication. He was surprised by the dawn when he was finally finished, ending the poem with the ironic words, "[It's] restful just to think about New Hampshire. / At present I am living in Vermont." Going outside to enjoy the sunrise, and in a mood that matched the poetic tone and the final words he had written, Frost was struck by an idea for a new poem about, in his words, "the snowy evening and the little horse," an idea that came to him in a flash, like "a hallucination." He wrote it directly, without waiting, in very "few minutes without strain."

These unique circumstances--(1) "Stopping by Woods" being preceded by the completion of a poem paying tribute to the unterribleness of New Hampshire and Vermont ("serve almost as well about Vermont") and (2) the idea and composition of the poem coming to him during a sunrise calm like "a hallucination" and "without strain"--lend incredulity (i.e., disbelief) to the notion that Frost had in mind dangerous, wild, unknown woods. We've seen that in "New Hampshire" Frost says that he wants his mountains (and their woods) wild, strongly suggesting that the mountains and woods of central New England are not wild and that he is not contemplating wild woods beneath the surprising and calm sunrise that greeted his exist from his reverie immortalized in "New Hampshire":

The only fault I find with old New Hampshire
Is that her mountains aren't quite high enough. ...
The more the sensibilitist I am
The more I seem to want my mountains wild;

IMPLICATIONS OF BIOGRAPHICAL ACCORD WITH POETIC TONE

Biographical information relevant to the creation of "Stopping by Woods" makes a strong case against these woods being wild, risky, unknown places of dark dangers. The idea of central New England's woods as painted in "New Hampshire," a poem completed immediately prior to Frost's composition of "Stopping by Woods," accords perfectly with the dreamy, calm, tranquil, friendly woods painted by the tone of the poem as conveyed through words and phonetic sounds. The conclusion that looms large from the accord between these two analyses is that the theme of woods in this poem is not one of dark dangers and risks in life; it is not one that posits life--at the few moments captured in the poem--as a threatening, troublesome, terrible place of risk and danger. This conclusion is confirmed by the picture Frost paints of central New England woods in "Birches." Textual analysis of "Stopping by Woods" that incorporates biographical matter makes clear what the woods theme most logically does not represent. What, then, is represented by the woods theme?

WHAT DOES THE WOODS THEME REPRESENT?

To get a good idea of what is represented by the wood theme, let's consider the characters in the narrative. There are three characters: the little horse (very important to Frost since he describes the poem as being about the "snowy evening and the little horse"); the man, who is also the poetic speaker; and the owner of the woods.

Each of these characters is an observer and an individual participant. The little horse observes the man stopping. It is also an individual participant because it doesn't share the man's interest in a wood filling with snow; it has its own opinion. It seems to perceive the wood filling with snow as being exactly like all the woods filling with snow it has ever seen and discerns no reason to give special attention.

The man is an observer of the snowy woods on the snowy evening. He is an individual participant because he interacts with the little horse; he psychologically interacts with the absent landowner; he contemplates the effect of the woods filling with snow.

The owner of the woods is an observer in absentia. Were he there, it is probably true that he would observe, not the woods, but the man watching the woods fill with snow. By saying that the owner "will not see," the man strongly implies that were he there, he would see. The owner is an individual participant in absentia because his conjectured interest stands in contrast to the little horse's lack of interest. The three form a community. This community is an implied extension to the population surrounding the owner living in the village.

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
[...]

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

The three elements we've talked about--tone, biographical information, and characters representing community--form the foundation for understanding the woods theme.

Firstly, the woods represent the gathering of community interests that are as friendly, lovely, yet as dark and deep as the woods themselves. Woods are dark and deep while being lovely in the same way that members of a community are a bit mysterious and definitely complex, or "dark and deep," though exceedingly lovely. Just as it is lovely to contemplate the changing shades of the woods in its changing seasons, so is it lovely to contemplate the changing shades of community in its changing progressions.

Secondly, the woods represents promises made to the community, which includes oneself. While it is pleasant to contemplate in a reverie the physical beauties of the woods and the represented beauties of a community, there are promises made to the community that cannot be neglected, promises made to oneself that cannot be neglected. Before us, in these three characters, we see four examples of promises made:

(1) The man has made promises to the little horse to care for it, feed it, shelter it and not keep it out in the cold an unreasonable time.

(2) The horse in turn promises by its nature to be the man's companion and to transport the man safely to the appointed destinations. This is why it shakes its harness and bells; it knows there are places to go and promises to keep and so seeks to remind the man that they must hasten on their way.

(3) The man has made an implicit promise to the owner of the woods to respect his ownership even while admiring what is owned; he has made a promise to honor their community bonds.

(4) The owner has made a promise in absentia to trust the man and appreciate his admiration of his woods: were he there, he would not chase the man off but would join in observing in the spirit of community sharing.

This analysis of the woods theme as representing community and promises made to the community is confirmed in the poem "New Hampshire." One particular point Frost makes, which is one of the surprises of the poem, is that crossing the "boundary" from Massachusetts to New Hampshire confronted Frost with unexpected depth in friendships.

Where I was living then, New Hampshire offered
The nearest boundary to escape across.
I hadn't an illusion in my hand-bag
About the people being better there
Than those I left behind. I thought they weren't.
I thought they couldn't be. And yet they were.
I'd sure had no such friends in Massachusetts
As Hall of Windham, Gay of Atkinson,
Bartlett of Raymond (now of Colorado),
Harris of Derry, and Lynch of Bethlehem.

As the man and the little horse stop in front of the woods filling up with snow, the man contemplates community and the horse reminds him of his promises, of his places to go. After a friendly, dreamy reverie about the beauties of woods and communities, the man bestirs himself to remember the miles he has to go in life to fulfill the promises made--including the promises made to himself to achieve and attain--to those who depend upon him in one way or another. Biographical information and the circumstances coming immediately before the penning of "Stopping by Woods" suggest Frost may have been thinking of those whose friendship and community was of a deeper quality than friends he had formerly known: "I'd sure had no such friends in Massachusetts...."

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