“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Robert Frost
This entry represents criticism of Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is generally regarded as Frost's masterpiece. The poem was included in Frost's collection New Hampshire (1923) for which he won the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes. It is Frost's most famous poem, and one which he himself viewed as his “best bid for remembrance.” It is also perhaps Frost's most frequently taught and anthologized poem. The speaker in the poem, a traveler by horse on the darkest night of the year, stops to gaze at a woods filling up with snow. While he is drawn to the beauty of the woods, he has obligations which pull him away from the allure of nature. The lyric quality of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” can be heard in the enchanting final stanza: “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.”
Plot and Major Characters
The speaker (presumably a man, although no gender is specified), while traveling on horseback (or in a horse-drawn sleigh) on the darkest evening of the year, stops to watch the woods fill up with snow. He thinks the owner of these woods is someone who lives in the village and will not see the speaker stopping on his property. While the speaker continues to gaze into the snowy woods, his little horse impatiently shakes the bells of its harness. The speaker describes the beauty and allure of the woods as “lovely, dark, and deep,” but reminds himself that he must not remain there, for he has “promises to keep,” and a long journey ahead of him.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” like many of Frost's poems, explores the theme of the individual caught between nature and civilization. The speaker's location on the border between civilization and wilderness echoes a common theme throughout American literature. The speaker is drawn to the beauty and allure of the woods, which represent nature, but has obligations—“promises to keep”—which draw him away from nature and back to society and the world of men. The speaker is thus faced with a choice of whether to give in to the allure of nature, or remain in the realm of society. Some critics have interpreted the poem as a meditation on death—the woods represent the allure of death, perhaps suicide, which the speaker resists in order to return to the mundane tasks which order daily life.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was included in Frost's volume New Hampshire, for which he won the first of four Pulitzer prizes. Critics generally agree that its central theme is the speaker's dilemma in choosing between the allure of nature and the responsibilities of everyday life in human society. However, the ambiguity of the poem has lead to extensive critical debate. Some conclude that the speaker chooses, by the end of the poem, to resist the temptations of nature and return to the world of men. Others, however, argue that the speaker's repetition of the last line “And miles to go before I sleep,” suggests an indecisiveness as to whether or not he will, in fact, “keep” the “promises” by which he is obligated to return to society. Many have pointed out that this “ambiguity” is in part what makes the poem great. Another standard interpretation is that the speaker is contemplating suicide—the woods, “lovely, dark, and deep,” represent the allure of death as a means of escape from the mundane duties of daily life. Still others, however, such as Philip L. Gerber, argue that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is most importantly a “lyric” poem, which should be appreciated in terms of its formal, metrical qualities, such as the complex, interlocking rhyme scheme, rather than its content or “meaning.” Gerber notes that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is “widely regarded, metrically, as Frost's most perfect poem.” Critics also point to the mood or tone of the poem, as created by its formal properties, as one of a person caught up in a reverie; the hypnotic quality of the repeated closing lines, in particular, suggests a chant or spell. James Hepburn noted that the inability of critics to secure a particular meaning of the poem is due to the quality by which “It is a poem of undertones and overtones rather than of meaning.” Critical debate over the meaning and significance of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” rages on, but few question the status of the poem as one of the greatest in American literature. Donald J. Greiner has observed of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that “Its deceptive simplicity, its ambiguity, and its interlocking rhyme scheme have been so lauded that it is now one of the most explicated American poems.” The extent to which this poem has been discussed—perhaps overanalyzed—by critics was indicated by the parodic interpretation of Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., who, tongue-in-cheek, surmised that the speaker is in fact none other than Santa Claus, the “little horse” who rings its harness bells representing a reindeer, and the “darkest night of the year,” during which the poem takes place, a reference to the winter solstice, which is only a few days before Christmas. According to this interpretation, the “promises” that the speaker must keep refer to Santa Claus's responsibility to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.