What is the meaning of "and miles to go before I sleep"?

In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the meaning of the line "And miles to go before I sleep" has been contested, but generally it refers to the speaker's temptation to avoid his obligations. Though the speaker would rather remain in the "lovely" woods, he is aware of his duties elsewhere and knows that he must go farther, physically and metaphorically, before he can finally rest.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The meaning of the line "And miles to go before I sleep" has been contested for decades by readers and scholars alike. The most obvious meaning is a literal—the traveler is talking about the prospect of sleep. He is traveling through the woods late at night, he is tired, and...

View
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The meaning of the line "And miles to go before I sleep" has been contested for decades by readers and scholars alike. The most obvious meaning is a literal—the traveler is talking about the prospect of sleep. He is traveling through the woods late at night, he is tired, and he is thinking about resting once his journey is finished. Some argue that the theme of the poem is duty versus obligation and that the beauty of the woods is a temptation for the traveler to abandon his duties, whatever they may be.

A more somber interpretation of the line has also gained prominence over time. Some believe the sleep that is referred to in the final stanza of the poem is nothing less than death itself—and perhaps suicide in particular. According to this reading, the speaker's journey is seen as a metaphor for the journey of life, and thus the speaker's temptation to cease his journey before its natural end is construed in that broader sense.

In either analysis of the last two lines, the sleep referred to is a temptation. The speaker wishes he could stay in the woods—either because they are beautiful or because he is lured by the prospect of death—but his obligations come first.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" paints a beautiful word picture of a wooded country road on a winter's evening while it is snowing. The speaker mentions in the first stanza that the owner of the woods lives in the village and would not see him stopping here, ending with the brilliantly haunting line "To watch his woods fill up with snow."

The short poem continues with thoughts that the horse pulling his sleigh or wagon (the poem does not specify which) must think it queer that they have stopped in the woods, with no farmhouse near.

The last stanza of the poem is where the "And miles to go before I sleep" line is written, and it is written twice for emphasis. The speaker has just stated that "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep."

Ending the poem with the words "And miles to go before I sleep. / And miles to go before I sleep" emphasizes the fact that the speaker realizes he is not close to home, where he can sleep. I believe that the repetition provides the idea that the speaker is likely repeatedly thinking about how far he must go that night.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first line reading "And miles to go before I sleep" is probably intended literally. The speaker is traveling some distance in a horse-drawn sleigh and still have some distance to cover before he gets home to a warm bed. The repetition of the line suggests that it occurs to the speaker that he still has a long life ahead of him with many things to do before he will sleep the sleep of death. Some critics have suggested that the whole poem contains a hidden death wish, but the fact that the speaker reflects that he is going to die some day does not necessarily mean that he wants to die now or at any time in the future. Most of us, at one time or another, have been struck by the realization that we are going to die some day. We may even wonder if there isn't some big calendar up in the sky with our name written in on one of the squares. The fact that the speaker, presumably Frost himself, says that he has, figuratively, miles to go before he dies would seem to suggest that he is not expressing a "death wish" but, on the contrary, assuring himself that he has many more years of life ahead of him.

Robert Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" around 1921. He died in 1963, so he had about forty-two years of life ahead of him on that winter night when he stopped to admire the beautiful winter scene. During those years he became America's best-loved poet. In 1961 he was honored by being invited to read one of his poems at John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The final two lines of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are repeated, which usually means the line is very important. Critics have offered several interpretations of these lines.   One is that "And miles to go before I sleep" refers to death.  The author visits woods that are  "lovely, dark and deep" on the "darkest day of the year."  It is possible the woods symbolize death, yet the poem seems so peaceful, it could be that the woods represent nature and freedom.  His brief stop in the woods may just be a moment of freedom before returning to the obligations of society.  "But I have promises to keep" may refer to those obligations and the final two lines could be more literally interpreted.

 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

These lines have been a matter of conjecture for years.  One interpretation is that the speaker in the poem, who has stopped to enjoy the beauty of Nature and the spiritual moment of this delight, realizes that he has obligations to fulfill before he can rest.  Of course "sleep" has also been interpreted as death with the poet having to work and obligations in his life before he can have the rest of eternal sleep.

At any rate, the small conflict of pausing in the woods with the horse giving the "harness bells a shake" is symbolic of a larger conflict in life.  For the speaker, the obligations of life seem to override the urge to delight in the beauty of Nature as he mentions twice the "miles to go."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on