Can you explain the line, "And miles to go before I sleep," with a short poem summary?

Expert Answers
ajmchugh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem, though short, can be interpreted in many different ways. 

Essentially, the speaker is on his way through snow-covered woods which he thinks are owned by a man he knows who lives in the village.  The speaker notes that the man who owns the woods won't see him stopping there "to watch his woods fill up with snow."  The suggestion, in this line, is that the speaker is stopping in the woods simply to observe their beauty. 

Further, the speaker notes that his horse must think it's strange that they are stopped in the middle of the woods; he "gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake."

The poem ends with the following lines:

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.

This last stanza can be interpreted in many ways. Some read it literally--meaning that the speaker, though he enjoys the beauty of the woods, he must keep going, because he has things to do and a long distance to cover until he is able to sleep. 

In a darker interpretation, some feel this poem is about the speaker's contemplation of suicide.  Because he's in the woods on the darkest evening of the year, and because the horse knows something is wrong, many readers interpret the last stanza to be the speaker's ultimate decision against the suicide he was contemplating.  In this interpretation, "sleep" means "die," and the "miles to go" references the life experiences the speaker still has ahead of him. 

copelmat eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many readers do choose to see the darker, contemplation of suicide interpretation in the last lines. However, Frost himself often discounted this interpretation and suggested that it "was just a poem about the snow."

Personally, I find the "and miles to go before I sleep" line to be a kind of lamentation on the responsibilities and obligations the speaker of this poem has to society and community. We know this speaker is alone and contemplating the beauty of woods that he does not own. We know that he is accompanied only by his horse and that the horse is accustomed to making this journey or at least other similar journeys. This speaker perhaps wants to relax to enjoy the beauty of the natural world but feels compelled to keep going, to complete whatever errand he is on--perhaps this journey is part of his job, or he is returning to see family, etc. Whatever the errand is, he feels he cannot do what he personally wants, he must take into account the other obligations and responsibilities given to him by society. The conflict is a classic example of man vs. society.

missbc | Student

Summary of the poem:

the speaker is travelling on horseback. You don't know where, but apparently he's in a place he's been before, after all, he says he thinks he knows who the woods belong to. He stops to have a look at the snow falling on these woods.

It's winter, the darkest evening of the year, this may refer to the shortest day (December 21st).

His horse is confused because this is a strange place to stop: there is no house in the vicinity.

Although he loves the look of the place, he is reminded by his horse that he needs to move on. He has a promise (an appointment?) to keep. And he still has a long way to travel.

The last lines; 'And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep' tell you that he still has a long way to go before he reaches his destination. This destination can be many things though.

Check the link to sparknotes, it has a very elaborate analysis.

Read the study guide:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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