Why does the horse think that a mistake has been made in "stopping by woods on a snowy evening"?

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billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The horse's behavior suggests that this is a familiar route. No doubt it runs from the speaker's farm into town and back, and the horse has been over it countless times. Proof that it is familiar is provided by the opening lines:

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.   
The little horse must be used practically exclusively for the purpose of pulling a sleigh or buggy into town and back for shopping trips to and from the same store in the same town. It is perfectly familiar with the route and knows where the speaker will stop if he ever stops between town and home. The speaker might stop at any of the farms along the way, either to visit or perhaps to buy something like milk or vegetables. In a thinly populated region like that, where everybody knows everybody, the speaker might have stopped along the way into town to ask some farmer or farmer's wife if they needed anything he could pick up for them and drop off on his way back. This might be a common practice in the region, and it might explain some of the "promises" the speaker says he has to keep.
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. 
Evidently there are some farmhouses between town and the speaker's farm. But the nearest one would be by some now frozen lake, which would be some distance beyond the woods where the speaker has stopped. He must be on his way back from the trip. The fact that it is growing dark is a further indication that this is the return trip. The horse would naturally be looking forward to getting unhitched and put in a warm stable with something to eat. It shakes its head because of impatience, not exactly to ask a question.
 
We have often heard of milk horses that are so familiar with a route that they will stop automatically at a certain location even though those customers have moved away. There is one such milk horse in the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. It is just a matter of conditioning, but the speaker chooses to take his horse's behavior as a sign of intelligent thinking. We, at least, should be able to understand that the speaker, though familiar with the route, is suddenly taken with the beautiful sight and stops to "watch his woods fill up with snow."
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wordprof's profile pic

wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The sense of this line is to emphasize how unusual it is for the speaker to stop on his long trip, here or anywhere, and gives us (the readers) the sense of how out of their normal habits and patterns is this pausing to look at, and hear, and feel, the world around them.  While a human being may intentionally change his behavior, the horse, without self-consciousness, does not have the ability to understand why the pattern of behavior -- steady plodding home to the barn -- has been altered.  There is a kind of soft personification here -- Frost is giving the horse some human traits -- asking if there is some mistake (by giving his harness bells a shake -- not really purposely asking a question), thinking it queer, etc. 

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