Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost - Essay

Robert Frost


(Poetry Criticism)

“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.

Major Themes

“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.

Critical Reception

“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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Twilight 1894

A Boy's Will 1913

North of Boston 1914

Mountain Interval 1916

New Hampshire 1923

Selected Poems 1923; revised, 1928 and 1934

West-Running Brook 1928

Collected Poems of Robert Frost 1930

The Lone Striker 1933

Two Tramps in Mud-Time 1934

From Snow to Snow 1936

A Further Range 1936

Selected Poems 1936

A Witness Tree 1942

Come in and Other Poems 1943; revised as The Road Not Taken,1951

A Masque of Reason 1945

The Poems of Robert Frost 1946

A Masque of Mercy 1947

Steeple Bush 1947

Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949 1949

Selected Poems 1955

Poems 1961

In the Clearing 1962

Selected Poems of Robert Frost 1963

The Poetry of Robert Frost 1966

Complete Poems of Robert Frost 1968

The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged 1969

Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose 1972

Selected Poems 1973

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 1978

Early Poems 1981

Collected Poems, Plays, and Prose 1995

Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays 1995

The Letters of Robert Frost (letters) 1963

Selected Letters of Robert Frost (letters) 1964

Interviews with Robert Frost (interviews) 1966

Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost (letters) 1972

Robert Frost: A Living Voice (speeches) 1974

John T. Ogilvie (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ogilvie, John T. “From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry.” South Atlantic Quarterly 58, (winter 1959): 64-76.

[In the following essay, Ogilvie discusses the recurring image of the dark woods in Frost's poetry.]

Leaves are all my darker mood


Together with “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” “After Apple-Picking,” and a dozen or so other familiar descriptive pieces, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of Robert Frost's most admired poems. The beginning poetry student in particular is likely to take to it, for quite understandable reasons: its...

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Lawrance Thompson (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, Lawrance. “Yes, I Suppose I am a Puritan.” In Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, pp. 236-39. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson describes the process by which Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

Fatigued and yet elated, after finishing the rough draft of “New Hampshire” in one stretch of work, Frost was not immediately aware that he had written straight through the short June night. When he put his pen down on the dining-room table and stretched, looking out through the living-room window, he was surprised to see that there was light in the east and that the syringa...

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Samuel Coale (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Coale, Samuel. “The Emblematic Encounter of Robert Frost.” In Frost: Centennial Essays III, edited by the Committee on the Frost Centennial of the University of Southern Mississippi, pp. 107-17. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Coale discusses the theme of man's encounter with the allure of nature in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

Frost admitted that “my best bid for remembrance” ([Lawrance] Thompson [Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph; hereafter cited as Thompson], 598) would be “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and it is ironic that of all the Frost poems we have examined, this...

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Donald J. Greiner (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Greiner, Donald J. “Robert Frost's Dark Woods and the Function of Metaphor.” In Frost: Centennial Essays III, edited by the Committee on the Frost Centennial of the University of Southern Mississippi, pp. 373-88. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Greiner discusses Frost's use of the image of the woods as a metaphor in his poetry.]

We should begin with a discussion of the spellbinding power of the woods because most interpretations of poems like “Stopping by Woods,” “The Sound of Trees,” and “Come In” comment upon the poet-figure's almost mystical attraction to the trees.1 “Stopping by...

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Frank Bernhard (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernhard, Frank. “Frost's ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” Explicator 40, no. 4 (summer 1982): 43-45.

[In the following essay, Frank provides a psychological interpretation of the speaker in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

Like the snake, a poem may slough off some of its more overt meanings and survive brilliantly in a new skin. The first level interpretation of Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” that of an exaltation of nature's beauty, has long since lost its allure; and the death-wish interpretation, too, has been overworked. It has recently been modified into a “little death” as opposed to the “big...

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Donald J. Greiner (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Greiner, Donald J. “The Indispensable Robert Frost.” In Critical Essays on Robert Frost, edited by Philip J. Gerber, pp. 222-38. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Greiner argues that it is the element of “ambiguity” which makes “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” a great poem.]

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (New Hampshire, 1923) was written in late spring 1922 and first published in the New Republic (7 March 1923). Yes, I know; the poem is overanthologized and thus overly familiar, but that does not mean that it is overpraised. Its deceptive simplicity, its ambiguity, and its interlocking...

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Philip L. Gerber (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerber, Philip L. “The Appropriate Tool: Frost’s Craftmanship.” In Robert Frost, pp. 66-88. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Gerber analyses “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in terms of its formal, metrical elements.]

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is widely regarded, metrically, as Frost's most perfect poem. He himself always offered it as the prime example of his commitment to convention, describing it as “my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.”1 Frost said that he wrote it after an extended night of work on his long poem “New Hampshire.” Whether it was inspired by...

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James G. Hepburn (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hepburn, James G. “Stopping by Robert Frost.” In Critic into Anti-Critic, pp. 15-21. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1984.

[In the following essay, Hepburn discusses a variety of critical responses to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

Many years ago, William Rose Benét called Robert Frost a “wise old woodchuck,” and more recently Lionel Trilling called him “a terrifying poet.” Trilling explained that the universe that Frost depicts is a “terrifying universe”; but even as he was speaking, Robert Langbaum was saying that “Frost takes into account nature's destructiveness, but his examples of it are seldom very frightening.” To Yvor...

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Anne Mack and J. J. Rome (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mack, Anne, and J. J. Rome. “Marxism, Romanticism, and Postmodernism: An American Case History.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 3 (summer 1989): 627-30.

[In the following excerpt, Mack and Rome offer a semiotic analysis of the title and opening passage of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

What comes to us as the title, the prefatory “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is a set of words which, even if we regard them as a single word string, are by no means self-identical. An initial reading may legitimately ask, for example, whether the third word is a common or a proper noun, and hence whether the “stopping” referred to is a casual...

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Leni R. Garcia (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Garcia, Leni R. “Reflections on ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” Sophia 20, no. 1 (May-August 1990): 27-31.

[In the following essay, Garcia reflects upon “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in terms of the philosophical perspective of Marcelian phenomenology.]

In this short reflection paper, I do not aim to discuss anything new. My objective is to cross the bridge between philosophy and literature. My framework is the Marcelian phenomenology.

There are pages and pages of literature devoted to the interpretation of Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” What I wish to do in this paper is to make a...

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Richard J. Gray (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gray, Richard J. “In Search of a Past: The Fugitive Movement and the Major Traditionalists.” In American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, pp. 101–52. New York: Longman, 1990.

[In the following excerpted essay, Gray discusses the seeming lack of resolution in the closing lines of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

The duality of the narrator's response to the woods [in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”] is caught in the contrast between the relaxed, conversational idiom of the first three lines (note the gentle emphasis given to ‘think’, the briskly colloquial ‘though’) and the dreamlike descriptive detail and hypnotic verbal...

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Guy Rotella (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rotella, Guy. “Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg, and Bohr.” In On Frost: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd, pp. 147–169. Durham: Duke University, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Rotella discusses the balancing of opposites and “indeterminacy” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” stages its play of opposites at typically Frostian borders between night and day, storm and hearth, nature and culture, individual and group, freedom and responsibility. It works them, not “out” to resolution but in permanent suspension as complementary...

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Jeffrey Meyers (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. “Michigan and the Lecture Circuit, 1921–1926.” In Robert Frost: A Biography, pp. 167–189. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Meyers discusses literary references in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”]

The masterpiece in New Hampshire is the justly famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Like “The Road Not Taken,” it suggests vast thematic implications through a lucid narrative. And like its predecessor, it has the same technical perfection as the poems by Frost's greatly admired touchstones: Herrick, Shirley and Collins. Frost said that he wrote this poem, “my best bid for...

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Jhan Hochman (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hochman, Jhan. “An Overview of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” In Poetry for Students. Vol. 1, pp. 276–79. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hochman discusses multiple interpretations of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem that seems to evade any one definite interpretation.]

Perhaps no poem of Robert Frost is more anthologized and studied than “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The poem appeared in Frost's collection, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes (1923) for which he won one of four Pulitzer Prizes. Even Frost called the poem his “best bid for remembrance.”...

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Karen L. Kilcup (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kilcup, Karen L. “The Faded Flowers Gay.” In Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, pp. 44-47. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Kilcup asserts that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a “feminine” poem and compares it to Helen Hunt Jackson's “Down to Sleep.”]

The final goal of the war on sentimentalism was to consolidate cultural authority over and against a dangerous feminine and feminizing mass culture. Ostensibly excluded from modernism is the sentimentality that resides within it, for (feminine) emotion remains transgressive in a culture structured by (masculine) rationality.1...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Coursen, Herbert R. Jr. “The Ghost of Christmas Past: ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” In The Overwrought Urn, edited by Charles Kaplan, pp. 86-88. New York: Pegasus Press, 1969.

Offers a humorous parody of an interpretation of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” concluding, tongue-in-cheek, that the speaker of the poem is Santa Claus.

Ferry, Anne. “Frost's ‘Obvious’ Titles.” In Reading in an Age of Theory, edited by Bridgit Gellert Lyons, pp. 147-63. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Presents an analysis of the significance of the titles of Frost's...

(The entire section is 509 words.)