Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4312
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 diction is unpretentious and subtly musical; it presents an engaging picture and hints at a “story” without too much taxing the imagination; it is short and seemingly unambiguous. And the teacher, from his side, likewise welcomes the opportunity to present a poem that can be enjoyed purely for its visual and verbal interest without having to be subjected to a rigorous search for “hidden meanings.” But, as experienced readers of this poem know, “Stopping by Woods” has a disconcerting way of deepening in dimension as one looks at it, of darkening in tone, until it emerges as a full-blown critical and pedagogical problem. One comes to feel that there is more in the poem than is given to the senses alone. But how is one to treat a poem which has so simple and clear a descriptive surface, yet which somehow implies a complex emotional attitude? To what extent and in what ways is one's experience of the poem different from, or the same as, the poet's experience? Can one's “feeling” about the poem be either proved or disproved, when so few footholds for interpretation are offered by the poem itself? Is any interpretation bound to be the result of “reading in” meanings of one's own?
These questions are too delicate to be acted upon hastily. Certainly, to construe the poem, as some critics have, as expressing a “humanistic” or “agnostic” view of life, or as projecting an unconscious “death-wish,” is to impose a pretty heavy burden upon so brief and unassuming a lyric. Although it would be a mistake wholly to reject these interpretations, nevertheless it is unlikely that any one of them can be established as a conclusive reading solely on the evidence of the single poem. “Stopping by Woods,” I believe, represents one of those junctures where the critic must enlarge on his findings through searching comparisons with other of the author's productions. Taken in isolation, “Stopping by Woods” gives only a partial view (and for some readers possibly a misleading view) of what is actually an absorbing and central concern in Frost's poetry. The collaboration of a number of related poems is required to reveal this preoccupation in its entirety.
The visible sign of the poet's preoccupation—the word is not too strong—is the recurrent image, particularly in his earlier work, of dark woods and trees. Often, as in the lyric with which we have begun, the world of the woods (for such in effect it becomes), a world offering perfect quiet and solitude, exists side by side with the realization that there is also another world, a world of people and social obligations. Both worlds have claims on the poet. He stops by woods on this “darkest evening of the year” to watch them “fill up with snow,” and lingers so long that his “little horse” shakes his harness bells “to ask if there is some mistake.” The poet is put in mind of the “promises” he has to keep, of the miles he still must travel. We are not told, however, that the call of social responsibility proves stronger than the attraction of the woods, which are “lovely” as well as “dark and deep”; the poet and his horse have not moved on at the poem's end. The dichotomy of the poet's obligations both to the woods and to a world of “promises”—the latter filtering like a barely heard echo through the almost hypnotic state induced by the woods and falling snow—is what gives this poem its singular interest. If its “meanings” were more overt, it would be less interesting, less an authentically conveyed experience. The artfulness of “Stopping by Woods” consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced. The poet is aware that the woods by which he is stopping belong to someone in the village; they are owned by the world of men. But at the same time they are his, the poet's woods, too, by virtue of what they mean to him in terms of emotion and private signification.
In Frost's first book, A Boy's Will (1913), we find a dark-woods imagery used repeatedly. It is not too much to say that the quiet drama of youthful love portrayed in the subjective lyrics of this volume takes place within the constant shadow of surrounding trees. That the trees are themselves part of this drama, and not simply descriptive background, is evident from such pieces as “Going for Water” and “A Dream Pang,” in which the act of withdrawing into “forest” and “wood” becomes the very subject of the poem and is endowed with an undefined, almost ritualistic significance. In the first poem, husband and wife enter a wood together on a moonlit autumn evening to get water from a brook. In the second, the poet dreams that he has “withdrawn in forest,” his song “swallowed up in leaves. …” He watches his wife, who comes to the edge of the forest in search of him, “behind low boughs the trees let down outside,” but does not call to her, though it costs him a “sweet pang” not to do so. The overtones here may be too “romantic” for most readers, but the psychological pattern symbolized is of considerable interest in a total view of Frost's poetry.
The desire, the need, to escape into the dark, receiving woods is unmistakably stated in the opening lyric of A Boy's Will, “Into My Own”:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees, So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom, But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day Into their vastness I should steal away, Fearless of ever finding open land, Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e'er turn back Or those should not set forth upon my track To overtake me, who should miss me here And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.
The wished-for freedom to retreat into the “vastness” of “those dark trees,” where the poet will not encounter the exposed, man-made world of open land and highways, is identified with coming “into his own”: for this he is willing to forsake even those he holds dear—they must seek him out. The pattern is the same as in “A Dream Pang.” In another revealing lyric of this volume, “The Vantage Point,” the poet pictures himself occupying a strategic position, a “slope,” between the world of nature and the world of human society. When “tired of trees,” he can come in the dawn to this vantage point and gaze unobserved upon “the homes of men” and “the graves of men”—
And if by noon I have too much of these, I have but to turn on my arm, and lo, The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow, My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze, I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant, I look into the crater of the ant.
The thought of effecting a final decisive escape into the dark woods, of never turning back, is accomplished only in reverie; it is a “wish,” a “dream.” It is more typical of Frost, as in “Stopping by Woods” and “The Vantage Point,” to counter the emotional drift toward “woods” with the realistic knowledge that, as a human being, he is implicated in the affairs of men and cannot justifiably disclaim them. The necessity for participating in both worlds, the worlds of self-in-society and self-in-seclusion, sets up a rhythm of continual advance and retreat which informs Frost's entire poetic expression. “Trees” and “mankind” are alternately sought and avoided as circumstances direct. Frost's birches are symbolic of this flexible movement:
I'd like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better. I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
There must be periodic withdrawals from the world “of considerations,” but not a permanent withdrawal. Life is a matter of going and coming back, of accommodating the real and the ideal within the dipping arc of the birch tree—the motion of one's sensitive experience. The double set of obligations enforces a partial compromise. Frost's characteristic attitude, as the title of a later poem indicates, is “not quite social.” But on the whole, the balance between society and solitude in his poetry is successfully maintained: the poet presents two full sides to his experience—the “neighborly” and the introspective. One feels, however, that the neighborly Frost, being the more accessible Frost, is much better known, while the poet of the dark trees, the poet who is “acquainted with the night,” remains furtive and ambiguous for most readers. Yet there are reasons for thinking, I believe, that the latter image is closer to being the essential Frost.
To begin with, the creative impulse itself, in at least two poems (“Pan With Us” and “The Demiurge's Laugh,” both from A Boy's Will), is identified in a quite intriguing way with the dark woods. In the first, Pan (the god of forests and pastures and also a musician), gray of skin, hair, and eyes, comes out of the woods one day and stands in the sun above an uninhabited wooded valley. Although he is pleased with the solitude of the scene, he tosses away his pipes. They are “too hard to teach a new-world song”; he lets nature speak instead:
Times were changed from what they were: Such pipes kept less of power to stir The fruited bough of the juniper And the fragile bluets clustered there Than the merest aimless breath of air. They were pipes of pagan mirth, He laid him down on the sun-burned earth And raveled a flower and looked away— Play? Play?—What should he play?
Pan (the poet) is in love with his woodland solitude; yet, having no audience, his impulse toward expression tends to dwindle away into fruitless self-interrogation. In the second poem, the poet pictures himself pursuing “the Demon,” the Demiurge (again the creative impulse) “far in the sameness of the wood.” He follows the trail “with joy,” though aware that his quarry is “no true god.” Then suddenly he hears all he needed to hear:
And the world had found new terms of worth. The sound was behind me instead of before, A sleepy sound, but mocking half, As of one who utterly couldn't care. The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh, Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went; And well I knew what the Demon meant. I felt as a fool to have been so caught, And checked my steps to make pretense It was something among the leaves I sought (Though doubtful whether he stayed to see). Thereafter I sat me against a tree.
The mocking laugh from somewhere in the dim woods is the mockery of the poet's search, the mockery of self-expression in the middle of such a solitude. The loneliness of the dark woods gives rise to poetry, but that same loneliness ultimately defeats its meaning and pleasure. If our interpretation is accurate, Robert Frost is not the first major American poet who remained a “singer solitary” even after he had enlisted, at considerable expense of spirit, an audience that could appreciate him. Whitman is another, more acute, example.
The imagery of dark woods, woven so indelibly into the texture of these early poems, persists in succeeding collections. “The Road Not Taken,” introductory to Mountain Interval (1916), can be read as a further commentary on the price of the poet's dedication. The two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood” represent a critical choice between two ways of life. The poet takes “the one less traveled by,” the lonelier road which, we can presume, leads deeper into the wood. Knowing “how way leads on to way,” he doubts that he “should ever come back.” His choice has made “all the difference,” yet it is a choice that he shall be recounting “with a sigh … ages and ages hence.” He is thinking also of “the road not taken.” The dark woods, though they hold a salutary privacy, impose a stern isolation, an isolation endured not without cost. In the poem “An Encounter,” the poet pictures himself “half boring through, half climbing through a swamp of cedar,” weary and overheated, and sorry he had ever left the road he knew. While resting, he looks skyward and sees above him “a barkless specter,” a telegraph pole “dragging yellow strands of wire with something in it from men to men.” This unexpected intrusion of the outer world of human society into the poet's inner world of trackless wood is occasion for ironic inquiry:
“You here?” I said. “Where aren't you nowadays? And what's the news you carry—if you know? And tell me where you're off for—Montreal? Me? I'm not off for anywhere at all. Sometimes I wander out of beaten ways Half looking for the orchid Calypso.”
The poet's quest, in contrast to the unswerving telegraph lines, appears to lack direction and purpose. The poet is alone, in communication only with himself.
In the lyrics of A Boy's Will, woods and trees foster a mood of youthful yearning and romantic furtiveness. In later poems, however, the mood perceptibly darkens. In “The Sound of Trees” and “Misgiving,” for example, trees and leaves are associated with thwarted desire. As they are swayed by the wind, their sound and motion suggest to the poet a longing to get away; but “a sleep oppresses them as they go” and they end by remaining, vaguely stirred, where they are. The poet himself desires the freedom to make “the reckless choice,” to “set forth for somewhere,” but by association we are led to believe that he will not do so. Though they are less congenial to him now, he will stay with the trees. In a still later poem, “Bereft” (West-Running Brook, 1928) leaves and wind conspire to remind the poet of his painful isolation:
Where had I heard this wind before Change like this to a deeper roar? What would it take my standing there for, Holding open a restive door, Looking down hill to a frothy shore? Summer was past and day was past. Somber clouds in the west were massed. Out in the porch's sagging floor, Leaves got up in a coil and hissed, Blindly struck at my knee and missed. Something sinister in the tone Told me my secret must be known: Word I was in the house alone Somehow must have gotten abroad, Word I was in my life alone, Word I had no one left but God.
The “something sinister” is as pronounced in “Tree at My Window.” Here correspondence between the poet's mental state and the wind-buffeted tree outside his window is firmly established; the one is the image of the other:
But, tree, I have seen you taken and tossed, And if you have seen me when I slept, You have seen me when I was taken and swept And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together, Fate had her imagination about her, Your head so much concerned with outer, Mine with inner, weather.
The ominous note of “all but lost” is amplified in “A Leaf Treader” (A Further Range, 1936). The “threatening” leaves of summer become outright images of sorrow and death in the fall:
All summer long they were overhead, more lifted up than I. To come to their final place in earth they had to pass me by. All summer long I thought I heard them threatening under their breath. And when they came it seemed with a will to carry me with them to death. They spoke to the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf. They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief. …
The woods as a place of danger and destruction figures vividly in an earlier dramatic piece, “The Hill Wife.” A young couple are living in an isolated region. The woman's loneliness there swiftly develops into a neurotic fear. A passing tramp is an omen of disaster; after he leaves she imagines he is “watching from the woods as like as not.” At night she lies awake in terror of the dark pine outside that is “forever trying the window-latch” with “tireless but ineffectual hands.” Finally her state of mind becomes unbearable. She strays into the threatening wood and never returns.
In all of these poems, the imagery of woods, trees, and leaves is so intimately and persistently identified with certain psychological states as to assume a symbolic significance. The dark woods represent the privacy of the self, the sacred domain where poetry is made. Their area is the area of the poet's introspective life, his subjective experience. The pattern of feelings established by this recurrent imagery is fluctuating and ambivalent. The poet guards and cherishes the woods as his own, but there are times when he must close his windows against them and turn outward toward the larger world of social intercourse. There is lurking terror in his woods as well as keen pleasure, numbing loneliness as well as quiet satisfaction; one can as much lose himself there as find himself. This becomes more apparent as the poet grows older and his introspective life deepens. In “Leaves Compared with Flowers” (A Further Range) he confesses that “leaves are all my darker mood,” and finally he reaches a point when he cannot be enticed into the dark woods at all.
When viewed as part of this pattern, such a poem as “Stopping by Woods” is put into meaningful perspective. What appears to be “simple” is shown to be not really simple, what appears to be innocent not really innocent. “Sight and insight,” Frost has said, “are the whole business of the poet.” They are also the whole business of the poet's readers. What to sight is presented as a literal scene, to insight is revealed as the objectification of a psychological state. The nature of that state is complex. The poet is fascinated and lulled by the empty wastes of white and black. The repetition of “sleep” in the final two lines suggests that he may succumb to the influences that are at work. There is no reason to suppose that these influences are benignant. It is, after all, “the darkest evening of the year,” and the poet is alone “between the woods and frozen lake.” His one bond with the security and warmth of the “outer” world, the “little horse” who wants to be about his errand, is an unsure one. The ascription of “lovely” to this scene of desolate woods, effacing snow, and black night complicates rather than alleviates the mood when we consider how pervasive are the connotations of dangerous isolation and menacing death. The same imagistic elements work more overtly toward the same end in “The Onset” (also from New Hampshire, 1923) and “Desert Places” (A Further Range), one of Frost's starkest expressions of the isolated self:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast In a field I looked into going past, And the ground almost covered smooth in snow, But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it—it is theirs. All animals are smothered in their lairs. I am too absent-spirited to count; The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness Will be more lonely ere it will be less— A blanker whiteness of benighted snow With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between stars—on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places.
When reading through the Complete Poems (1949), one can see that at some undefined point in Frost's mid-career—roughly with West-Running Brook (1928) and A Further Range (1936)—his orientation begins to shift. He becomes more the “neighborly” poet who chats at length with his readers about the issues of the day, and less the objective dramatist and self-exploring lyricist of the earlier books. He becomes more outspoken about himself and about the world of men. He projects himself into the “further ranges” of politics, science, philosophy, education, and theology. “Ideas” as such become more important to him than the individual persons and objects of nature, the “specimens” of concrete life, so lovingly collected in North of Boston and Mountain Interval. The very manner of voice changes. Metaphorical indirection gives way to explicit generalizations. The forms of satirical discourse and epigram are introduced to convey his opinions more directly. The poet's old game of hide-and-seek is still evident but now is carried on more by means of a bantering verbal irony (e.g. “A Drumlin Woodchuck”).
The drift in Frost's poetry from an empirically operative intuitiveness toward an insistent didacticism is reflected, interestingly enough, by a shift in imagery pattern. Woods, symbolic of the introspective life, are gradually displaced by the heavenly bodies of outer space, symbolic of more impersonal, intellectual considerations. In as early a poem as “Bond and Free” (Mountain Interval) the poet expressly identifies love with the earth and thought with the star, and in “The Middleness of the Road” (Steeple Bush, 1947) he speaks of the “local green” suggesting “rest” (the inner life) and the “universal blue” (sky) suggesting “flight” (cosmic speculation). As loneliness and grief more and more fill those woods where youth and love once delighted, the poet turns his attention upward toward the abstract questions framed by the stars. (See, for examples, such later productions as “Canis Major,” “On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations,” “Lost in Heaven,” “All Revelation,” “A Loose Mountain [Telescopic],” “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus,” “An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box,” “Bravado,” “On Making Certain Anything Has Happened,” “Astrometaphysical,” “Skeptic,” and “Two Leading Lights.”) The later Frost reminds one of the hugger-mugger farmer in “The Star-Splitter” who
… burned his house down for the fire insurance And spent the proceeds on a telescope To satisfy a life-long curiosity About our place among the infinities.
But in this earlier poem Frost is skeptical of the value of stargazing:
We've looked and looked, but after all where are we? Do we know any better where we are, And how it stands between the night tonight And a man with a smoky lantern chimney? How different from the way it ever stood?
The same skepticism is voiced in another New Hampshire poem, “A Star in a Stone-Boat,” in which the poet says, in effect, that more is to be learned from stone walls than from meteors. Nevertheless, the poet finds increasing satisfaction in observing the night sky as time goes on. The stars suggest a reassuring order and permanence, in contrast to uncertain earthly affairs. We should
… choose something like a star To stay our minds on and be staid.
The passage from woods to stars that we have been tracing in Frost's poetry is poignantly recorded in one late lyric (A Witness Tree, 1942) called “Come In”:
As I came to the edge of the woods, Thrush music—hark! Now if it was dusk outside, Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird By sleight of wing To better its perch for the night, Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun That had died in the west Still lived for one song more In a thrush's breast.
Far in the pillared dark Thrush music went— Almost like a call to come in To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars: I would not come in. I meant not even if asked, And I hadn't been.
The poet refuses to re-enter the dark woods; he will not answer that beautiful voice (his own deepest poetic impulse?) that bids him come in and lament. He is a stranger to the woods now. He is “out for stars,” and will stay out. The empty spaces above are preferred to the empty spaces within. He will not “turn back.” It is not so much a different Frost speaking in the later poems as it is the same Frost who, like the people portrayed in North of Boston, has had to make adjustments in the face of life's “shocks and changes” in order to survive. Though there is less of the true poetic vision in the later work, the courage and the intelligence are steadfast:
They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931
“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.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3011
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 bush at the edge of the front lawn was already coming out of darkness. With a sense of unusual excitement, he stood up, walked stiffly to the front door, opened it, descended the stone steps to the dew-heavy grass, and stood marveling less at the dawn than at his night's work. Never before, in all his years of sitting up late to write, had he worked straight through until morning. Even now, with the poem tentatively finished, he was not ready to stop. There was something else he wanted to write, or that he felt impelled to write, although he had nothing immediately in mind as a starter. Back into the house he went, moving through the living room to the dining room almost as though he were sleepwalking. He picked up his pen, found a clean page, and began a lyric which had nothing to do with the dawn of a June day. He seemed to hear the words, as though they were spoken to him, and he wrote them down as best he could, in his fatigue, even though they came so indistinctly at times that he was uncertain what he heard. In a short time, and without too much trouble, he completed a rough draft of these four quatrains:
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.
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.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.(1)
Pivoting on the word “promises,” and therefore suggesting innumerable extensions, this new poem immediately seemed to him one of the best he had ever written.2 The tensions between his promises to himself as artist and to his wife and family—and others who made demands he often resented—continued to make him feel guilty. Equally serious to him was the feeling that although he had promised himself, years ago, that he would do everything in his power to succeed as a poet, he often doubted whether he had the creative energy to keep adding elements of newness to his poetic performance. This night's accomplishment, no matter how faulty and incomplete, gave him new courage to face the miles he hoped to go before he slept. New in this experience was the odd juxtaposition of the tight lyric form, with its unusual rhyme scheme, and the sprawling, discursive conversational form of “New Hampshire.” The incentive provided by the excitement of this night's work made him begin to think he could build around this doubly centered nucleus enough pieces to make a book more to his liking than A Boy's Will or North of Boston or Mountain Interval.
Unfortunately, he had another set of promises to keep during that summer of 1922, and his plans for the new book advanced no further until he returned to South Shaftsbury from Ann Arbor during the Christmas vacation of 1922. Even then, his commitments down-country hauled him away too soon, with results which were not all impertinent. On his way down to New York, one surprise which came to him after his reading at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, suggested the possibility that his new book might be illustrated with woodcuts by J. J. Lankes. His host for the night, in Worcester, showed him a copy of Mountain Interval extra-illustrated with some appropriate Lankes woodcuts, including one directly inspired by Frost's poem, “After Apple-Picking.”3 Frost had already noticed and praised one woodcut made by Lankes, and as soon as he discovered that Lankes had already made an illustration for one of Frost's poems he was eager to arrange deliberate collaborations. When he reached New York and talked with Carl Van Doren about the plan for publishing “The Star-Splitter” in the Century Magazine, he suggested that Lankes (who had already done woodcuts for Century) would be just the artist to do an illustration for this new poem. The suggestion was accepted, and carried through. Then Frost had told MacVeagh that Lankes would be an appropriate illustrator for the new book. Again the suggestion was accepted. During the same visit to New York, he placed in the hands of Ridgely Torrence a fair copy of “Stopping by Woods,” which appeared in the New Republic not long after the visit.4 Returning to South Shaftsbury, from New York City, after talking there with Untermeyer about the still vague plans for the new book, Frost began to select and arrange poems. By the time he returned to Ann Arbor from South Shaftsbury, he had progressed far enough to confide to Untermeyer:
“It might be a good idea to call the explanatory poems Notes. I'm pretty sure to call the book New Hampshire. The Notes will be “The Witch of Coos,” “The Census-taker,” “Paul's Wife,” “Wild Grapes,” “The Grindstone,” “The Ax-helve,” “The Star-splitter,” “Maple,” “The Witch of Grafton” (praps), “The Gold Hesperidee” (praps), and anything else I can think of or may write before summer.
“I'll go further and say that I may even bring out a volume of lyrics at the same time and refer to it in New Hampshire as The Star in the Stone-boat. I'm in a larking mood. I'll do almost anything for the sake of contraption.”5
In this larking mood, he did have fun with his academic relationships by adding to “New Hampshire” passages which served as undeveloped hints which needed explaining. These passages justified his use of mock-scholarly footnotes containing merely the titles of the so-called “explanatory poems.” His next decision was to give the book a three-part structure: Part One would be devoted exclusively to the title poem, Part Two would be the “explanatory poems” grouped as “Notes,” and Part Three would be lyrics which could be referred to on the title page as “Grace Notes” in the sense that they were added for pure ornamentation.
When he began to assemble the poems to be used as “Notes,” he gave first place to “A Star in a Stoneboat.” Obliquely this poem did provide extensions of the self-revealing and self-concealing equivocations, in “New Hampshire,” concerning polarities in his religious beliefs and unbeliefs. The first image of the “star” poem is a meteorite which a laborer “picked up with stones to build a wall” and loaded on “an old stoneboat” or horse-drawn sledge built of heavy planks. After suggesting his own reasons for wishing he might find such a heaven-sent token, the poet concludes with hints concerning the acknowledged limitations of his own vision. …
RF was extremely inconsistent in his various accounts of how he wrote “Stopping by Woods.” His often-repeated assertion that it “just came” to him, complete, so that he wrote it all “with one stroke of the pen,” is taken under scrutiny in The Early Years pp. 594-597. But even as the incomplete first-draft manuscript of it (in JLA) reveals some of his hesitations and difficulties in writing it, so his first extended comment reveals some others. In a letter to Sylvester Baxter, in 1923, he made the following remarks on his use of the repetend in the fourth stanza:
“I'm surprised at you that you should be the one of all my poetical friends to miss the reason for the repetend in Stopping by Woods. There should be two reasons[,] one of meaning and one of form. You get the first and fail of the second. What the repetend does internally you come very near: what it does externally is save me from a third line promising another stanza. If the third line had been dead [i.e., without a rhymed ending] in all the other stanzas your judgement would be correct. A dead line in the last stanza alone would have been a flaw. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”
(Quoted from R. C. Townsend, “In Defense of Form: A Letter from Robert Frost to Sylvester Baxter, 1923,” New England Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, no. 2 [June 1963], p. 243.)
This early, in his remarks on “Stopping by Woods,” RF is implying that the problems involved in writing it were merely “considered for a moment” before they were resolved. During the next twenty years, and more, he very consistently slipped into the posture of claiming that he wrote the entire poem “with one stroke of the pen.” (Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, in her Fire Under the Andes , quotes him as saying he thus wrote this poem and three others: “The Mountain,” “Birches,” and “Two Look at Two.”) However, in 1946, when Charles W. Cooper and John Holmes requested RF's permission to reproduce a facsimile of the first-draft manuscript (or at least what remained of it, as previously given by RF to JLA), the poet discussed at length with Holmes the difficulties confronted in the writing of it. This discussion was published by Cooper and Holmes in their Preface to Poetry (New York, 1946), p. 604. Even so, on many occasions thereafter he repeated his idealized version of the event. After RF's death in 1963, John Clardi accurately reported, “Time and again I have heard him say that he just wrote it [“Stopping by Woods”] off, that it just came to him, and that he set it down as it came.” (“Robert Frost: The Way to the Poem,” in Dialogues with an Audience [Philadelphia, 1963], pp. 156-157.) But on one occasion in 1950, RF's friend since Michigan days, Charles Madison, challenged the claim that many of his best poems were written with one stroke of the pen, and RF self-consciously replied:
“I won't deny I have worried quite a number of my poems into existence. But my sneaking preference remains for the ones I carried through like the stroke of a racquet, club, or headman's ax. It is only under pressure from friends that I can consent to come out into the open and expose myself in a weakness so sacred and in the present trend of criticism so damaging. When I look into myself for the agony I am supposed to lay claim to as an artist it has to be over the poems that went wrong and came to grief without coming to an end; and they made me less miserable than I deserved when I discovered that though lost they were not entirely lost: I could and did quite freely quote lines and phrases of them from memory. I never wrote a poem for practice: I am always extended for the best yet. But what I failed with I learned to charge up to practice after the fact. Now if I had only treasured my first drafts along with my baby shoes to bear me out in all this I should be more comfortably off in a world of suspicion. My word will be more or less taken for it that I played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence: such as for example November Days, The Mountain, After Apple-Picking, The Wood-Pile, Desert Places, The Gift Outright, The Lovely Shall Be Choosers, Directive. With what pleasure I remember their tractability. They have been the experience I couldn't help returning for more of—I trust I may say without seeming to put on inspired airs.
“Then for a small chaser of the low-down under the head perhaps of curiosa I might confess the trade secret that I wrote the third line of the last stanza of Stopping by Woods in such a way as to call for another stanza when I didn't want another stanza and didn't have another stanza in me, but with great presence of mind and a sense of what a good boy I was I instantly struck the line out and made my exit with a repeat end. I left the Ingenuities of Debt lying round nameless for forty years because I couldn't find a fourth line for it to suit me. A friend, a famous poet, saw it in 1913 and wasn't so much disturbed by my bad fourth line as he was by the word ‘tessellation’ further on. The same famous poet [Ezra Pound?] did persuade me to omit a line or two from the Death of the Hired Man and wanted me to omit the lines Home is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in. The last three lines of Nothing Gold Can Stay were once entirely different. A lady in Rochester, N. Y., has, I think, the earlier version. I haven't. Birches is two fragments soldered together so long ago I have forgotten where the joint is.”
(Quoted from Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry. Revised Edition [New York, 1950], pp. 603-604.)
The first draft of “Stopping by Woods” shows that the first three lines of the fourth stanza were initially:
The woods are lovely dark and deep But I have promises to keep That bid me give the reins a shake
RF, having rhymed “shake” with “mistake” and “flake” in the previous stanza, reconsidered the third line, here, and came up with this one, provisionally:
That bid me on, and there are miles
After these two tries, he apparently saw a better solution suggested by “and there are miles.”
RF repeatedly named “Stopping by Woods” as his favorite among all his lyrics. As early as 1923 he called it “my best bid for remembrance.” (Letters to Untermeyer, p. 163.) It may have had a special significance for him because he could read so many private extensions of meaning into and out of it. He could have endowed the word “promises” with his most cherished religious beliefs concerning the significance of fulfilling moral obligations. Also, he could have endowed the same word with his ambitious decision to achieve a lasting reputation as a poet.
Professor Loring Holmes Dodd, who played host to RF after the reading at Clark University on the night of 5 Jan. 1923, gave the following retrospective account of how RF discovered that Lankes had already made at least one illustration for one of RF's poems:
“Up to the time of his coming to read his poetry in the Fine Arts Course at Clark University … Robert Frost had published his books without illustrations of any sort whatever. Yet here I was asking him, teasingly of course, ‘Have you seen the illustrated edition of your works the publishers are bringing out?’ I held before him and opened up North of Boston and Mountain Interval, each illustrated with a half-dozen wood engravings by the artist J. J. Lankes. For just a second he was puzzled. He examined the engravings seriously. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he looked up at me from the chair in which he was sitting. ‘You did that!’ he said. He was right. Extra-illustration has long been a hobby of mine. Where I had obtained these woodcuts to insert in North of Boston and Mountain Interval I cannot now recall. But they fitted the poems as though drawn for them. For instance, the famous ‘After Apple-picking’ … in the Lankes engraving the moon, just over the horizon, outlines the ‘two-pointed ladder sticking through a tree,’ and the apples ‘two or three’ left ‘upon some bough.’ Lankes did draw the illustrations for the poems, as he admitted later, not upon commission but for the sheer love of the thing. The poems inspired him.”
(Quoted from Loring Holmes Dodd, Celebrities at Our Hearthside [Boston, 1959], pp. 234-235.)
RF, in his first letter to Lankes (c. 20 Aug. 1923; TUL), wrote, “I should tell you I've already seen some of your things used as illustration for my Mountain Interval in the library of a man in Worcester.” When Mountain Interval was first published, in 1916, Julius John Lankes (1884-1960) was living in Gardenville (near Buffalo), New York. Born in Buffalo, he attended the Art School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and worked in oils and water colors; for a time he earned his living as a mechanical draftsman. His father was a cabinetmaker, and Lankes obtained his first blocks for woodcutting from the excellent small pieces of hardwood discarded by his father. He made his first woodblock in 1917; his record-book shows that his first Frost-inspired woodblock was entitled “October (Moonlight and Apple Tree)” and that it was completed on 26 July 1921. The political views of Lankes were strongly socialistic, and some of his early woodcuts appeared in the Masses and the Liberator. RF first noticed his work and name in January of 1922 when LU sent to Ann Arbor a copy of the Liberator which contained one of the best woodcuts Lankes ever made: “Winter,” described by RF as representing “the back side of a village in snow.”
“Stopping by Woods” appeared in the New Republic for 7 March 1923. A fair copy of the poem, in RF's handwriting, signed, and with the inscription, “For Ridgley / January 8 1923,” is in the Torrence Papers, PUL.
RF to LU, 5 Feb. 1923; Letters to Untermeyer, p. 157.
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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
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
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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 is the least “Frost-y.” It contains all the “proper” Frost images—snow, woods, darkness, a sleigh—but it is extremely unlike the usual stance of mutual confrontation. Frost advised, “Set yourself against the moon. Resist the moon” (Thompson, 77), but here he has not resisted and has for once slipped into a state of what we may call romantic reverie, a kind of self-hypnosis. Always before, he has resisted the spellbinding, seductive quality of the encounter with nature, placing himself firmly on the far side of his emblems as observer and visitor. In “Into My Own” he wishes that “those dark trees” would stretch away “unto the edge of doom,” so that he might enter beyond that boundary line of nature's “territorial imperative” and be unafraid of the possibility of never finding open land, but he guards his impulses carefully with double negatives and the use of the conditional tense. Besides, this is only “one of my wishes.” In “The Sound of Trees” he is lured on again “till we lose all measure of pace, / And fixity in our joys, / And acquire a listening air,” but he leaves quickly. In “Come In” he resists the luring sound of the thrush “far in the pillared dark” and withdraws into the forest in “A Dream Pang” only to be sought after and pursued: “But 'tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof, / For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof.” In “Away!” the longing is identified specifically with “having died.”
In “After Apple-Picking,” one of the finest poems to explore what might happen after the act of encounter, Frost falls asleep, having picked enough apples even if more always remain. The “sleep” mirrors the act of apple-picking and repeats it though in a “magnified” way. Clearly the fact and the dream have merged, and the laborer has trouble trying to tell them apart. Time is suspended as if Frost has become mesmerized by his own actions, and in the poem he tries to understand exactly what this “mesmerization” can be.1 Is it somewhat like a woodchuck's hibernation, a drift into an “animal sleep” and so part of a natural cycle that assures waking? Is it a prelude to death itself? Or is it “just some human sleep” that has occurred because he's just “overtired”? In either case he has slipped beyond the distinct boundaries of the emblematic encounter with nature into a realm where “magnified apples appear and disappear” and go “surely to the cider-apple heap / As of no worth.”
The strangeness of the experience arouses Frost's curiosity, for “essence of winter sleep is on the night,” and “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight.” His desire to discover “whatever sleep it is” cannot be fulfilled, and the very form of the poem in its irregular lines is as uncertain as the state of suspension itself. In any event the poem recounts the mysterious state; it does not create or initiate that state itself. Frost is observing what has occurred, not what is occurring. In the poem itself, he is not involved in or undergoing the entrance to that suspended state.
In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Frost does enter the state of suspended animation within the rhythmic and hypnotic framework of the poem itself; the very rhythmic progression of the poem completely undermines the forward movement implicit in the “promises” in the final stanza, as if the last lines—“And miles to go before I sleep”—in their repetition are a sleepy, final attempt to deny what in fact is already happening. The speaker is stopping, coming to an hypnotic halt; the repetition of the final lines suggests that the poem has come to a full spellbound stop. Frost here has succumbed to that very poetic reverie the emblematic encounter purports to deny, and he does not escape this time. His desire to stop and the scene around him blend inextricably in a form of enchantment or self-hypnosis that often occurs in Coleridge's poems, but unlike Coleridge Frost fails to return to his starting place, however transformed by the thoughts and images expressed in the poem. He is led on into a reverie that is as complete a spell as any in the most romantic of poetry; poetry has become incantation; the art of synecdoche (the stabilizer of the emblematic encounter) has broken down, and we are left immobile and hypnotized by language.
Frost does not wish to be seen in the first stanza, as if he knows that his stopping is somehow the wrong thing to do; he is perhaps feeling some guilt, some sense of foreboding as to the true nature of his giving in to the spell of the woods. “To watch his woods fill up with snow” initiates his reverie. Twice the horse interferes with the gathering spell, first in the poet's thoughts—“My little horse must think it queer”—and secondly in its actions—“He gives his harness bells a shake.” The bells awaken the speaker momentarily from the drift of his mood; he acknowledges the interruption as if attempting to rescue himself from the relentless and inevitable direction of the poem itself but acknowledges the interruption only to turn from it—“The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” The woods which are filling up in the first stanza are “deep” in the fourth. Once more he attempts to rouse himself to get going—“But I have promises to keep”—but the last two lines assure the victory of reverie, and he has slipped away into some “frozen lake” of some self-hypnotic realm beyond the strict boundaries of his earlier encounters.
Whenever Frost has talked about the poem, he has always emphasized its craft. No one can deny the supreme artistry of the “self-perpetuating” rhyme scheme, what Frost called “my heavy duty poem to be experienced for the rime pairs.” We know that despite the legend he did not complete the poem at one stroke, as the early versions of the fourth stanza clearly indicate, but the fact remains that the poem is experienced in one full stroke as a poem. In celebrating the pure form of the poem, Frost begins to sound like Poe, a self-hypnotic chanter of verses if there ever was one, and Frost suggests that the poem was the product of what he calls “autointoxication.”
The idea of enchantment or hypnosis is unusual in Frost's poetry, but he has indicated that he may have been more concerned with such ideas and intuitions than we have previously acknowledged. Frost speaks of the poet as one who “must be entranced to the exact premonition,”2 and for whom “there should be some way to tell … the excitement of the morning from the autointoxication of midnight” (SP [Selected Prose of Robert Frost; hereafter cited as SP], 51) as if at times he were himself unable to tell the difference. Too, a poem's “most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it” (SP, 20).
The fact remains that this is the only poem in which Frost is completely carried away with the vision, in which the encounter becomes not a mutual confrontation but a merger of man and nature into a suspended state of complete stasis. Frost was indeed carried away here, for he recognized “the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza. … I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred. And it was all right so long as I didn't suffer deflection” (SP, 26). It is ironic finally that the most un-Frostian poem in the broadest sense has become the star of his collection. “The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do” (SP, 97), Frost wrote, but in his most famous poem he celebrates not the ritualistic “holding apart” of the emblematic encounter but a full-bodied, Poesque rite of passage into what appears to be a supreme poetic trance.
THE EMBLEMATIC ENCOUNTER
Frost's emblematic encounter with nature reveals the basic “strategy” of his poetry. He celebrates the physical presence of natural facts and the integrity of action in man's relation to them—“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows”—believing that to add too much meaning to them is finally to betray their own elusive and ultimately mysterious solidity, to take away the meaning of the actual encounter. “The Most of It” and “that was all” are one and the same thing. Within the context of a Frost poem each natural fact embodies all potential meaning;3 it is emblematic of a possible greater meaning, the existence of which we can know only in the thing itself. For Frost Emerson transcended actuality all too easily and finally betrayed its integrity, seeing in it only the narcissistic reflections of his own innocent spirit. Such innocence misleads and betrays; Frost will not abide it. He acknowledges the yearning for transcendence, the desire as expressed in “Directive” to “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion,” but he feels that in nature we can only hope to have intimations of a “something” which can be embodied finally only within the natural universe itself.
To embody the emblematic encounter in his poetry, Frost insisted upon “stripping down” language. The closer language approaches the clean lines of this encounter, the better the metaphorical dimensions can be felt: the encounter itself becomes man's metaphorical relationship with the natural world. Since nature cannot maintain this ordered encounter indefinitely, as we can see in “Spring Pools” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” art must satisfy such longings. Thus the action of the poem, the movement both into nature and into language, sustains the momentary stay against confusion and suggests the possibility of some ultimate reconciliation.
Frost wanted “words that do deeds” ([Louis] Untermeyer [Robert Frost: A Backward Look], 38), and in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” the deed of stopping is fully realized. In fact the poem in its celebration of a final action, the action of stopping, may be his ultimate achievement as a poet. Looked at in this light the poem illuminates Frost's ultimate encounter with nature where distinct “sides” are no longer distinct, where the final state of grace is a kind of aesthetic completion or death beyond which no encounter is possible. We have reached perhaps that final recognition of truth in nature, a fulfilled interrelationship that can exist only at the moment of the greatest poetic achievement when form becomes all and action stops completely. For Frost this pure celebration of his craft may have been his final intuition of God, although as an orthodox Christian he would always separate God finally from His works whether natural or poetic. Here perhaps he has become his own god.
The final poem from In The Clearing best describes that emblematic encounter with nature which Frost, with the remarkable exception of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” took to be the raison d'être of his art. As usual he goes “against the trees,” his force pitted against nature's own, not in a cosmic struggle for supremacy but in a momentary action that outlines both man and nature against that point of active encounter. As he leaves with his maple cut low, “I link a line of shadowy tracks / Across the tinted snow.” He moves across and through nature, his existence “shadowy” yet somehow a “link” with it, a link to some wider, ultimate encounter. Nature has not been defeated “in one tree's overthrow”; nor has man been defeated in his retreat “for yet another blow.” Both exist to encounter each other anew, and all that Frost would ask of us is “You come too.”
Emma Gray Emory, “Hypnotism in Nature Poems by Robert Frost,” unpublished paper, Wheaton College, May 12, 1972.
Philip L. Gerber, Robert Frost (New York: Twayne, 1966), 108, 114.
My thanks to conversations with Leo Marx, professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, who helped to clarify some of my ideas.
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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 poems.
Ford, Caroline. The Less Traveled Road. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935, 59p.
A discussion of Frost's views on his own poetry.
Heaney, Seamus. “Above the Brim: On Robert Frost.” Salmagundi, no. 88-89 (fall-winter 1991): 275-94.
Explores the darker side of Frost's poetry.
Hoffman, Daniel. “Robert Frost: The Symbols a Poem Makes.” Gettysburg Review 7, no. 1 (winter 1994): 101-12.
Discusses the use of symbols in Frost's poetry.
McDowell, Michael J. “Since Earth is Earth: An Ecological Approach to Robert Frost's Poetry.” South Carolina Review 24, no. 1 (fall 1991): 92-100.
Presents Frost's reputation as a “nature poet” in the context of late twentieth-century concerns about ecology.
Moore, Richard. “Frost's ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘Out, Out—,’ and Swift's Gulliver's Travels.” Explicator 58, no. 2 (winter 2000): 95.
Explores the theme of work versus play in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Paton, Priscilla. “Apologizing for Robert Frost.” South Atlantic Review 63, no. 1 (winter 1998): 72-89.
Offers differing assessments of Frost's status as a major American poet.
———. “Robert Frost and the American Landscape.” Iowa Review 29, no. 2 (fall 1999): 83-96.
Discusses Frost's status as a “nature poet” in the context of late twentieth-century conceptions of nature.
Stambuk, Andrew. “Learning to Hover: Robert Frost, Robert Francis, and the Poetry of Detached Engagement.” Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 4 (winter 1999): 534.
Explores the attitude of “detachment” in the poetry of Frost and the poet Robert Francis, to whom Frost served as a mentor.
Tuttleton, James W. “The Rehabilitation of Robert Frost.” New Criterion 14, no. 10 (June 1996): 65-70.
Presents the image of Frost as the “farmer poet” and “poet farmer” of New Hampshire.
Walcott, Derek. Review of Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, by Robert Frost. New Republic 213, no. 22 (27 November 1995): 29.
Critical discussion of Frost's public image in regard to this recent collection of his works.
Additional coverage of Frost's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 21; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 67; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13, 15, 26, 34, 44; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 54; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 7; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1–7, 10, 13; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature; Something About the Author, Vol. 14; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; and Writers for Young Adults.
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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 Woods” is the focal point of this particular reading of Frost because it contains most of the elements to be found in the group of poems that inspires the interpretation. Finding himself alone between the opposing worlds of nature and man, the traveler stops to watch the woods fill up with snow. Even his horse knows that one does not normally stop so far from the village, especially on the “darkest evening of the year.” But any fear of isolation which the traveler might have gives way before the pull of his casual interest in the scene. Natural interest, though, soon becomes fascination as the woods, with the help of “easy wind and downy flake,” begin to weave their spell. The woods seem to offer a place of revery, a welcome interlude from the promises that should be kept. But while the woods are lovely, they are also “dark and deep.” The apparently measureless domain of the woods neutralizes for a moment the traveler's definite commitment to the village before he breaks the spell and moves on toward town. He rejects the mysteries which the woods offer to keep the undefined promises awaiting him in the village. Or at least he seems to free himself from the woods. This is the standard reading of the woods metaphor in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It is highly probable, however, that the conflict remains unresolved as the poem ends. The repetition of the last two lines (“And miles to go before I sleep”) has generally been interpreted to mean that the narrator is stressing his obligation to the village as he turns his back on the trees, but perhaps this repetition should be read in conjunction with the repeated rhyme sound in the last stanza. The sound of the final quatrain is hypnotic, and as such it joins the other sound of “easy wind and downy flake” as the force which lulls the traveler to stop short of the village. The traveler wants to believe that his place is with his promises, but the hypnotic, repetitive sound of the final stanza suggests that his vow will be neutralized by his inaction. If this interpretation has merit, then the poet-figure at the end of “Stopping by Woods” remains in the clearing between village and woods, with the spell of the woods offsetting his awareness of promises.
This pattern, or variations on it, structures most of the poems in which the woods metaphor functions importantly. The poet-figure is alone; he is stationed between the dark woods and man; he feels the pull of both, momentarily entertaining the invitation which the mysterious woods seem to offer; he would like to free himself from his cares; and the central question is whether or not he can reject the spell and accept his burdens or “promises.” The same problems are faced in “Come In,” a poem which is nearly always discussed along with “Stopping by Woods.” Here the loveliness of the woods is represented by a thrush's song, and the darkness is suggested by the fact that it is too late in the evening for the bird to “better its perch for the night. …” The music and the woods cast their spell with an invitation to enter the dark and “lament.” But approaching no closer than the edge of the trees, the poet-figure rejects the call by turning toward the stars. At this moment the poem's ambiguity is established—what do the stars represent? In refusing to enter the dark woods, the narrator turns toward another kind of isolation and, perhaps, loneliness as suggested by the star. There is certainly no hint in “Come In” that he has decided to return to society or to any obligations which he may have, but the fact remains that he does not enter the trees or “lament” in the “pillared dark.” The mood of revery, of fascination bordering on hypnotism, is absent in “Come In,” but the conflict is the same as that in “Stopping by Woods.” “The Sound of Trees” is an example of a variation on this theme although the basic outline of the conflict remains intact. In this poem the narrator wonders why we tolerate the constant sound of trees when other noises so close to our homes would be resented. Frost uses the word “suffer” to suggest the seriousness of the problem. Significantly, the trees again act as a metaphor for the forces which would pull us away from our daily business:
We suffer them by the day Till we lose all measure of pace, And fixity in our joys, And acquire a listening air.
The narrator listens to the noise and decides that although the trees talk of going, they will never leave the scene. A parallel is thus established between these trees and the narrators of “Stopping by Woods” and “Come In” who would like to enter the dark woods but who resist the pull. But it is here that Frost subtly varies the pattern of this metaphor. For while the trees may talk of going but never get away, this narrator vows to pack up and leave the “measure of pace”:
I shall make the reckless choice Some day when they are in voice And tossing so as to scare The white clouds over them on. I shall have less to say, But I shall be gone.
His declaration of freedom from his “promises,” however, is ironic because of the identification established between himself and the trees. He has done no more than adopt the tree's pose—constantly talking of going but never making more than the first few moves. The spell of the woods seems complete at the end of this poem, but its intactness is an illusion. The narrator fools himself if he believes that he rejects his obligations.
Clearly, Frost varies the meaning of his woods metaphor. His insistence on allusion and indirection, his use of common objects for metaphorical significance, and his demand that the reader “be at home” in metaphor when thinking or reading are all at work in these illustrations of the woods metaphor. The meaning of the woods is never consistent. Indeed, the only consistency which the reader can be sure of is that Frost varies the significance of his most famous metaphor. For example, although the spell of the trees is contested in “Stopping by Woods” and “Come In,” the woods often function as a metaphor for that place to which the poet-figure can retreat away from the pressures of reality. Retreat does not mean escape. Many readers believe that the traveler rejects both total escape and retreat in “Stopping by Woods,” but in several of the woods poems, periodic retreat is necessary to compose the self before returning to humanity. Frost was quite careful about the arrangement of individual poems in his books, and it is significant that “Into My Own,” the first poem in the first book (A Boy's Will), is a poem of retreat to the woods, just as the last poem, unnamed, is in the last book (In the Clearing). The moods of the two poems are different, but the settings and themes are similar. “Into My Own” is a poem of youth's rebellion, an almost defiant declaration of independence from those who would miss him if he left. Once again the trees are dark, and the narrator vows to go his own way as he retreats into the woods, a metaphor for himself. The woods are also vast, as he hopes his inward state is, stretching all the way to “the edge of doom.” Absolutely sure of himself, the immature narrator declares that he will find nothing new, only support for his already formed opinions:
They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Such confidence is lacking in the final unnamed poem. This is a lyric of old age in which the narrator shoulders his axe for a last retreat to the woods. He goes alone, of course, and in keeping with the poem's mood, the images suggest age: winter, late afternoon, shadowy tracks. Yet this is not a poem of defeat or death. The woods function as a dual metaphor—as nature and as a place to forget daily cares—just as they do in “Into My Own.” But this narrator is wiser; he is not so sure of his beliefs. All he knows is that he cannot defeat nature, nor can it beat him:
I see for Nature no defeat In one tree's overthrow Or for myself in my retreat For yet another blow.
All the mystery of the dark woods rests in that final word “blow.” Is his retreat planned solely to cast a blow against nature by cutting down one tree, or does he suspect that he will also receive a blow from the woods in return? Here is the metaphor's ambiguity stated in four short lines, and it is this ambiguous nature of woods, their loveliness, their darkness and deepness, that so fascinates Frost.
The point is that the woods do not grant any special refuge to the poet. Their beauty and stillness seem to offer a place where solace can be found away from the cares of everyday reality, but the consistent darkness of Frost's woods suggests that the narrator is not always sure of what he will find if he chooses to enter the trees. One possible reading of the darkness is death, surely a valid, but not the only, interpretation of the hypnotic spell. The pattern of the woods metaphor outlined above, and variations on it, holds for most of the poems in which trees play a significant role, but the woods themselves do not always bring the same response in the narrator. Nearly always lovely and dark, the trees represent that place in which the narrator might find or lose himself. In “On Going Unnoticed” and “An Encounter,” the poet-figure finds himself lost when he crosses the edge of the clearing to enter the trees. In the latter poem the lostness is merely physical. Sorry that he ever left the road, the narrator finds himself nearly suffocated by the crush of natural growth. Because he sees a telephone pole, a sure sign of humanity's presence, we never fear for him, but he nevertheless loses his way. “On Going Unnoticed” is a more fearful poem. This narrator enters the woods for the specific purpose of determining his own significance, but he makes the mistake of measuring himself against the apparently infinite life of the forest. He finds that even the coralroot flower counts for more in the woods than he and that his loudest shout is paltry when compared to the tumult of the leaves. Never once lost in a physical sense, the narrator experiences a greater shock. He learns that his life span is no more than a “little hour” while the woods “sweep leafily on. …” His discovery opposes that of the confident youth of “Into My Own,” for these woods do not reveal what he had hoped to find. Man passes through life unnoticed by the solid, eternal forest.
That place of potential solace suggested by the woods in “Stopping by Woods” can turn out to be a place of violence and a cause of fear. In “The Draft Horse,” the narrator finds himself in a setting a little like that in “Stopping by Woods.” He has a companion with him, but he is in a horse-drawn buggy passing through the dark woods late at night. The key difference between the two poems is that this narrator is literally in the forest, a fact which clearly matters. Viewed from a distance as “lovely, dark and deep” in one poem, the forest is a “pitch-dark limitless grove” when entered in the other poem. Similarly, the horse in “Stopping by Woods” is alert and almost human in its awareness of the poet-figure's predicament, whereas the horse in “The Draft Horse” is described as “too heavy” and as a “ponderous beast.” Every detail in “The Draft Horse” is against the narrator and his companion. The lantern will not burn; the buggy is too frail; the horse is too heavy; and the woods are too dark and limitless. In a beautifully incongruous matter-of-fact tone, Frost describes how a man comes out of the trees and deliberately stabs the horse. No warning has been given, and the word “deliberately” suggests that violent death is waiting specifically for them once they enter the woods. The ambiguity of the violent situation is established in the third stanza:
The ponderous beast went down With a crack of a broken shaft. And the night drew through the trees In one long invidious draft.
We are not quite sure whether the night is resentful about the killing or about the human presence in the forest. This narrator knows that he is up against a greater force than he, but he does not question the apparently senseless death:
The most unquestioning pair That ever accepted fate And the least disposed to ascribe Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself Or someone he had to obey Wanted us to get down And walk the rest of the way.
His acceptance is, of course, ironic, for it is tempered by the almost humorous, matter-of-fact expression of their blind fatalism.
The threat of natural forces can, then, be represented by the woods as well as by the storm in Frost's poetry. The metaphor works because of the mysterious, dark characteristics which seem impenetrable to human questioning. Losing their loveliness, the dark trees become a metaphor for fear, desolation, or possible violence. Rather than long to enter the woods in these poems, the individuals hope to escape the power which the dark, impersonal trees seem to have.
This discussion of the woods metaphor shows that Frost makes significant variations from the general pattern of hypnotic pull and eventual rejection which most of us remember when we think of his deep, dark woods. The tone associated with the metaphor is nearly always consistent. It usually suggests the impulse to retreat, or sadness, or mystery, or outright terror—dark tones in keeping with the darkness of the woods. But Frost's uses of the metaphor are so varied that no one interpretation can be successfully applied. Yet, the woods metaphor remains the best concrete illustration of his more general conclusions about the function of metaphor, particularly those expressed in his letters and in “Education by Poetry.” Revealing his analogizing mind, this metaphor shows how the true poet simultaneously recognizes something new in a common object, uses figurative language to suggest the correspondence, and demands that the reader be educated enough in poetry to pick up the unanticipated metaphorical notation.
See James G. Hepburn, “Robert Frost and His Critics,” New England Quarterly, XXXV (September 1962), 367-76 for a full discussion of the problems of interpretation in these poems.
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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 death” of the suicide wish. “… If there is any death in the poem,” writes Nat Henry, “… it is the little death of abnegation to which we sentence ourselves daily because of what we owe to those who depend on us …” (Explicator, 37, 1 , 37-38).
It is the naïve tone of the speaker that leads us first to read the poem as an ode to the beauty of nature; surely nothing more sophisticated can be attributed to the simple farmer on his homeward journey. Only the line, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” (italics mine), alerts us in its yearning and its mystification of the woods to a death-wish the speaker does perhaps neither understand nor even discern.
To plumb the significance of the poem we must first abandon our reliance on the speaker's own insights; so long as we accept his analysis we are merely conspirators in evasion. No sooner, however, do we discredit the speaker than the poem's complexities and true pathos shine forth. For “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” embodies at least three facets of the American tragedy: the compulsive adherence to the work-ethic; the preoccupation with the dictates of society; and the terror of facing introspection. Because he cannot surmount any of these hurdles the speaker never stops to watch the woods fill up with snow. There is a before-stopping and there is an after-stopping; but the actual stopping to commune with nature and self never occurs. The poem's title, thus, becomes wryly ironic.
We meet the speaker worrying over who the owner of the woods is and then quickly assuring himself that “his house is in the village,” in the social world from which the speaker has temporarily strayed, and would not see him. The mere act of stopping here gains a criminal patina—what is it he should not be doing? Watching the woods fill up with snow! Shame and guilt seem to stem from the break in the work-ethic to indulge in socially frowned on, “unmanly,” emotions.
Although during the break between stanzas one and two, the speaker, reassured that he would go undetected, has stopped physically, he is still unable “to watch the woods fill up with snow” because he has now endowed his horse with the condemnation which he expects from society. The horse, not cursed with human guilt, is not likely to “think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near”; had the horse not been there, the speaker would have endowed the owl or the groundhog in its hiding with disapproval of him. The unconscious use, by the speaker, of “queer,” meaning odd, is interesting too—evoking as it does a connotation of that other, pejorative sense of the word, “unmanly.”
The speaker enumerates now the reasons why he should not be stopping: the place is cold, dark, and deserted. The very reasons why the speaker did want to stop—the loneliness of the night, and the absence of social critic, now are offered as incentives to move on. Clearly the speaker is in conflict: the moment away from the world both calls, siren-like, and terrifies. It may seem to him that (just like the followers of the sirens) he would be drawn into death if he truly stopped; but we know that this is not so—through introspection and a fusion with the universe he would find life; and this is what he is, in fact, afraid of.
An objective truth begins the third stanza with the horse's shaking of its harness bells; yet the interpretation of the fact is immediately subjective and, as such, misguided: “To ask if there was some mistake.” Again the speaker's misgivings are projected onto the horse.
The second half of the third stanza suggests at first glance that the speaker has at last resolved his conflict and achieved his communion with nature. And yet not so: “The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake” (italics mine). The dominant sound is that of the harness bells; the sounds of nature are peripheral. The speaker clings to the social sound of the bells against the dizzying swirl of nature and the unconscious like someone atop a tower who, because of vertigo, cannot bear to look down, so instead, focuses his gaze on the railing.
And so, before he has stopped, truly stopped, before he has allowed himself to abandon the focal-point of the horse as an outpost of society, before he has communed with nature, he is already, in the last stanza, abandoning it: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” is not spoken in contemplation of the woods; it is a dismissal: “Oh, well, I know all about those lovely woods, BUT”—and the “but” explodes with great relief—“I have promises to keep.” This is the rationalization which permits the speaker to move on, allowing him to escape “honorably” from meeting up with himself.
Although it may be futile to speculate what would have been if he had stopped, it is clear that the speaker would then have come to understand his impulses and fears and, thus, would have shared our insights. As it is, we leave him as blind as we had found him, only feeling wiser ourselves. Call it dramatic irony.
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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 rhyme scheme have been so lauded that it is now one of the most explicated American poems. But a more important point is that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the poem of dark woods in American literature. Frost himself knew that the poem was memorable; in a letter (2 May 1923) to Louis Untermeyer, he refers to “Stopping by Woods” as “my best bid for remembrance.”1
The judgment of history may concur. The irony is that the myths that Frost fabricated about the poem have contributed to its reputation. Although Thompson has shown that Frost's stories about the composition of “Stopping by Woods” are false, the poet claimed time and again that he wrote his most famous lyric with one stroke of the pen. The heart of the myth is that, tired from working on the long poem “New Hampshire,” he was inspired to write “Stopping by Woods” without a single revision. Such was not the case, of course. For one thing, the Jones Library at Amherst has the rough first draft of the poem. Interested readers may consult Thompson's biography for a complete account of how Frost wove the spell of myth around the composition of “Woods.”2
For all of Frost's justifiable pride in the intricate rhyme scheme, it is interesting to note that the rhymes of the final stanza gave him the most difficulty. The initial draft of the poem reveals that the first three lines of this famous stanza originally read:
The woods are lovely dark and deep But I have promises to keep That bid me give the reins a shake. …
If he had continued the AABA, BBCB, CCDC rhyme scheme of the other three stanzas, he would have been forced to add a rhyme for “deep/keep,” to use “shake” as the predominant rhyming sound in a fifth stanza, and to move on to additional quatrains. Luckily for him—and us—he found a way out of the dilemma. In 1950, twenty-eight years after writing the poem, he explained to Charles Madison, an old friend: “I might confess the trade secret that I wrote the third line of the last stanza of ‘Stopping by Woods’ in such a way as to call for another stanza when I didn't want another stanza and didn't have another stanza in me, but with great presence of mind and a sense of what a good boy I was instantly struck the line out and made my exit with a repeat end.”3
The “repeat end” has intrigued readers for decades. Does it mean that the moods of first casual interest and then momentary fascination in the woods are finally rejected in favor of obligations in the village? Such is the traditionally accepted reading of the poem. The other extreme is more suggestive but perhaps more suspect. In this interpretation the lovely, dark, and endless woods indicate the lure of a final abdication of mundane duties to the extent that the plunge into the darkness and deepness results in death.
Both positions and attendant variations have their advocates, but it seems to me that the poem's greatness is posited on its ambiguity, and its ambiguity results from the speaker's stasis. We do not know which direction he chooses at the end of the poem, woods or village. Chances are that he rejects both. He remains in the clearing, a crucial location in Frost's poetry, not only between the woods and village but also “between the woods and frozen lake.” The lure of the woods balances the promises in the town, and the speaker himself is frozen with indecision. To accept one alternative is to give up the other, a predicament, suggests Frost, that is universal. An acceptable way out of the dilemma is not to force a decision but to write a poem about the difficulty of making one.
This is just what Frost does—and a great poem at that. The key to such a reading is not imagery but sound. In his indispensable poems, Frost unites technique and theme so that each illuminates the other. In “Stopping by Woods” the slow, forward progression of the interlocking rhyme scheme reaches a halt in the final stanza where the rhymed words have only one sound. Similarly, the exact repetition in the last two lines emphasizes not reiteration of purpose but inability to get going, a metaphorical spinning in the snow. Finally, the contrast in the third stanza between harsh sounds (“shake” and “mistake”) and soothing sounds (“The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy …”) is resolved in the final quatrain in favor of the latter. Frost recalls the hypnotist's trance when he concludes the poem with the interlocking rhymes of “sweep,” “deep,” “keep,” “sleep,” “sleep.” Not action but reverie is suggested. The traveler remains at the end where he is at the beginning—stopped by the woods on the darkest evening of the year.
One of the highlights of the poem is that its apparent simplicity masks far-reaching complexities at the heart of both man's lot and the creative process. It is not that Frost advocates indecision but that he knows about the difficulties of making a choice. His use of deep woods as the controlling metaphor is fortunate, for the lure of the forest's darkness both beckons throughout the milestones of American literature and threatens the existence of all those who take the plunge—from Carwin to Roderick Usher to Hester and Dimmesdale to Theron Ware to Nick Adams to Ike McCaslin to the traveler by the woods to the reader himself.
The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, ed. Louis Untermeyer (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), p. 163.
See especially Thompson, I, pp. 596-597; and II, pp. 596-598, 608-609.
Thompson, II, pp. 597-598.
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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 “auto-intoxication” and sheer tiredness, as its author suggested, or by some more ethereal influence, it has come to be the single poem with which most readers identify Frost.
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.
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.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
It will be instructive to observe his own account of the creative process which ended in this lyric.2 No better demonstration could be desired for explaining what Frost may have meant when he spoke of a poet committing himself to convention—to form.
One begins with the principle that poetry is organic, that thought takes precedence over form. This principle requires one to fall into accord with Emerson: “The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.”3 One begins then with the concept; this is genesis. Any poem has three parts, Frost pointed out: the point or idea; the details which develop it; then the technique with which it is crafted.
The idea must be well in mind initially, as well as the details that will give it flesh. This problem taken care of, the very first line of the poem—particularly if it is being written in conventional form—constitutes a first step into deeper commitments. What is the meter? What length is the line? Supposing that rhyme is to be used, the last word in the first line is vital. Frost, in his composition, came up with a first line of iambic swing containing four beats: Whose woods these are I think I know. So far so good. Now the second line: His house is in the village though.
At this point, the poem can go any one of several ways. It can continue in iambic tetrameter couplets. It can verge into tercets. It can build toward a quatrain or toward one of the five- or six-line stanzas. Finally, it can edge over, despite its beginning couplet, into another of the free-form poems like “Storm Fear.” The third line of the poem, however, rules out at least the tercet. But the meter is retained. The rhyme here is so far uncommitted. With the choice of his fourth line, the poet has pledged himself to the quatrain and to the rhyming pattern aaba.
Now one arrives at the most critical step in the creative process. Frost often spoke of the indulgent smiles he received “for the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza.”4 By picking up—casually, one would like to think—the odd-rhyme here and establishing it as the major rhyme of the new quatrain, Frost bound himself to a most difficult pattern. It would require all his powers to carry this intricately interlocked form to conclusion. If he succeeded, it could assure his reputation as a craftsman. If he botched the job or weaseled out of it halfway through, he could shatter the poem. The delicacy of maneuver at this particular point resembles that of a diamond cutter who must consciously make his decisions and then follow through with sure, deliberate strokes.
By the time the poet reached the third stanza, he had a good idea of how long the poem would be; for the idea was developing swiftly, and the details dramatized it adequately. Now, how was he to conclude? The chosen pattern has set up an expectation that the third lines of every stanza will lead into another verse. It cannot simply halt without doing violence to the maxim that all things possess a natural beginning and ending. If that third-line rhyme is left dangling, it would destroy the art thus far apparent. The poem has become self-perpetuating, like terza rima. Fittingly, the device used for closing off terza rima suggests a solution for this new form also.
“Every step is a further commitment.” In the fourth stanza the poet masterfully abandons the odd-rhyme pattern of his third lines, rhyming that line instead with the first two in the quatrain. The last line, a simple but profound underscoring of the third, concludes the poem in the most natural way possible.
Surely this poem shows Frost at his best: he composes strong sentences that flow along with the meter, not straining it or themselves; he uses rhymes so natural and inevitable that one cannot decipher whether they arrived first or last in order of thought. “Stopping by Woods” should be read as an illustration of Frost's description in “In A Poem”:
The sentencing goes blithely on its way And takes the playfully objected rhyme As surely as it keeps the stroke and time In having its undeviable say.
“Stopping by Woods” does supremely well what Frost says a good poem will do: it rides on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove.5 The townsman who stood outdoors on a spring day chopping his own wood was watched by two tramps from the logging camps who “judged me by their appropriate tool.” To show how he “handled an ax,” Frost liked to point to “Stopping by Woods” as the supreme example of his craftsmanship and let it do his boasting for him.
Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost's Asides on His Poetry,” American Literature 19 (January, 1948): 358.
Cook, Dimensions, pp. 78-80.
Emerson, p. 320.
Frost, “The Constant Symbol,” p. 51.
Frost, Complete Poems, p. viii.
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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 Winters, Frost was incapable of grasping the predicament of modern man; to Hyatt H. Waggoner, he understood the predicament and made a “strategic retreat”; to James M. Cox, he “forced a clearing in the woods,” braved “the alien entanglements of experience.”1
Consider the variety of interpretations of a single poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Some earlier writers see the poem as a tribute to the New England sense of duty; Lawrance Thompson sees it as an epitome of the journey through life, with hardships (the dark and cold evening), beauties and pleasures (the woods), duties, and death. Leonard Unger and William Van O'Connor think that the traveler's choice is between estheticism and moral action; John Ciardi prefers the woods to represent the death-wish. Most critics do agree—tacitly—on one aspect of the meaning of the poem: that it ends with a rejection of whatever the woods represent and an affirmation of whatever is implied by “promises.” An attempt to resolve some of the differences among such critics cannot do better than to begin at this point at which they are in agreement.2
For their agreement seems no more satisfactory than their disagreement. To say that “Stopping by Woods” ends with an affirmation is to ignore the tone in which the literal or symbolic meaning is given. Unger and O'Connor in their commentary on the poem assert that the effect of the repeated last line is to emphasize the choice made for moral action; but in fact the lulling rhythm and repetition, of both rhyme and phrase, deprive the assertion of force. The mood that the poem induces in the reader nullifies his acceptance of the intention expressed by the traveler. The sum of the reader's experience of the poem is different from the meaning of the traveler's experience of the woods. Presumably the traveler goes home to supper, to his duties, and to the rest of his journey through life; but these things are not the poem.
To put the matter differently, a distinction must be made between the spell of the woods that the traveler experiences (and that the reader of the poem may once have experienced) and the spell that develops in the poem. Each of the first three stanzas begins flatly; each rises, with the last line or two lines, toward the spell; but not until the end of the third stanza is the rise powerful, and not until the opening of the fourth and final stanza is the rise sustained rather than broken. The spell is clearly and firmly achieved only in the final stanza, both in the lines in which the traveler acknowledges the spell of the woods and in the lines in which he rejects it. According to Reginald L. Cook, Frost composed “Stopping by Woods” after he had spent a whole night working on another poem: “He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. ‘I always thought,’ he explains, ‘it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”3 Presumably, then, Frost began not with the spell of the woods but with a mood; he referred his mood to a remembered spell of the woods, and referred it as well to particular rhythms, rhymes, and language. Frost's own statements on his art support such a view, not only as it applies to the process of composition, but as it applies to his chief poetic aims: poems “begin in something more felt than known” (“Education by Poetry”); the poet's “intention is of course a particular mood that won't be satisfied with anything less than its own fulfillment” (“The Constant Symbol”); the outcome of a poem is “predestined from the first image of the original mood—and indeed from the very mood” (“The Figure a Poem Makes”).4 At any rate, “Stopping by Woods” is, for the reader, not so much a recreated experience of the spell of the woods as it is an experience of words, images, rhythms, and rhymes; the action that its narrator commends to himself is contradicted by the spell of language.
A similar conflict between meaning and mood occurs in many Frost poems, notably in “Come In.” On the symbolic level, this poem presents more difficulties than “Stopping by Woods,” for the choice between woods and stars is not nearly so clear a choice as one between woods and promises. The woods may be the same in both poems, but are stars promises? Most commentators on “Come In” do not discuss the problem. They accept the implication in the poem that the stars represent something different from the woods; and they assume—on the basis of parallelism with “Stopping by Woods,” “Into My Own,” and other poems—that the stars represent human or social values. But the mood of the poem contradicts any such symbolic meaning. Although the narrator refuses to come into the dark and lament, the poem is a lamentation, and the narrator's refusal is a lamentation. In contrast to “Stopping by Woods,” the dominating stanza in “Come In” is the penultimate stanza. Almost everything that precedes it builds directly toward it, and the fall in the final stanza is a dying fall. The poem begins with a solitary narrator, a darkening woods, and a lonely bird. The second and third stanzas present deepening images of melancholy: the bird singing bravely and futilely, the light of day fading. With the heightened language of the fourth stanza, the melancholy mood is fully established. The last stanza diminishes—but does not break—the mood. The narrator says that he is “out for stars”—and although the stars do not possess explicit symbolic meaning, they do carry the suggestion of loneliness and isolation.5 The tone of the stanza is only slightly playful (no more playful than the tone in the second stanza); it is a tone of melancholy bravado, like the bird's, a tone of injured pride and renunciation:
But no, I was out for stars: I would not come in. I meant not even if asked, And I hadn't been.
The renunciation in the stanza is a mood rather than an act. As a mood it is close to the mood of the rest of the poem. Superficially, the renunciation is stated more firmly than the renunciation that closes “Stopping by Woods,” but the power of the fourth stanza, the absence of a clear distinction in the choice, and the tone of the renunciation override the gesture.
The reverie, regret, melancholy, and renunciation that pervade “Stopping by Woods” and “Come In” are common to much of Frost's poetry. Their typical accompaniment is the spell, the dream, the tableau, the withheld action. In A Boy's Will, “Into My Own” sets the tone for several poems. The narrator expresses a wish to enter the woods, but he does not enter. He says that “I should not be withheld,” but the poem expresses only a yearning for darkness and isolation. In “Storm Fear” the narrator may—like the traveler in “Stopping by Woods”—go about his tasks the next day; but the poem ends with the mood of surrender: “And my heart owns a doubt ❙ Whether 'tis in us to arise with day ❙ And save ourselves unaided.” The titles of such poems as “Ghost House,” “A Dream Pang,” and “Reluctance” suggest their moods. In “Reluctance” the narrator does not wish to “bow and accept the end ❙ Of a love or a season”; but the poem affirms nothing except desolation. In “Pan with Us,” Pan forsakes his pipes, his joys: “Play? Play?—What should he play?” A Boy's Will concerns romantic weltschmerz rather than will—even a wind's will. Many of the lyrics in later volumes are similar: “After Apple-Picking,” “An Old Man's Winter Night,” “The Sound of the Trees” (compare “I shall make the reckless choice” with “I should not be withheld” in “Into My Own”), “To Earthward,” “Acquainted with the Night,” “Desert Places,” “Moon Compasses.” Of course, these poems differ from each other significantly. The detailed daytime scene of “After Apple-Picking” is hardly to be confused with the impressionistic nighttime scene of “Desert Places.” Nevertheless, both poems are reveries, tableaus, dream poems.
Such qualities may not seem to include the dramatic quality that critics characteristically speak of in describing Frost's poems. Lawrance Thompson mentions the “drama-in-miniature … with setting and lighting and actors and properties complete” (25) of “Stopping by Woods,” and John Ciardi analyzes the poem as three scenes set against each other. But the poem presents a dramatic tableau rather than a dramatic action; the only action is the horse's shaking its harness bells. In “Come In,” the narrator renounces action. “The Pasture” describes a gesture. In “Reluctance” and “Acquainted with the Night,” the action consists of walking. Of course, these are lyric poems, but Frost's monologues, dialogues, and dramatic narratives reveal much the same quality. The situation in “Mending Wall” moves toward no conflict and toward no resolution. The narrator “could say ‘Elves’,” but he does not do so much as that. “The Death of the Hired Man” avoids a clash between Warren and Silas; it offers no genuine clash between Warren and Mary, but rather a revelation of the stubbornness of the one and the generosity of the other; it moves toward a conclusion that obviates a quarrel and an action. The poem is the coda to an action. “Home Burial” much more nearly approaches dramatic action, but it ends on the verge of an action that probably there will be no need for: “I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will—.” “The Subverted Flower” depicts the failure of youth to act in its own behalf. In these four poems, farmer and neighbor, husband and wife, and boy and girl confront each other; but the tension builds toward the establishment of a subdued, somber, or savage mood rather than toward an action. Other poems with a radically different tone possess something of the same quality. The narrator in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” does no more than maintain his stance against the tramps. In “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” the woodchuck commits himself to a defensive posture, and nothing in the poem recommends a different attitude to the reader. The narrator in “An Empty Threat” expresses a desire to abandon civilization, but he does not go (“I stay,” he says in the opening line of the poem) and he does not want to stay.
Awareness of these qualities of mood and image runs through all of the critical arguments that address themselves to meaning and action. No commentary on “Stopping by Woods” fails to acknowledge the spell of—or in—the poem. The differences of opinion arise through the transformations that the spell undergoes according to the poetic, psychological, or social presuppositions of the individual critic. James M. Cox, for example, speaks of the “haunting rhythms” of the poem; he then goes on to describe the poem as a “counter-spell” against the woods: “the act by which the traveller regains dominion of his will. The intricately interlocking rhyme scheme … and the strict iambic tetrameter, while they imitate and suggest the hypnotic power of the forest, also form the basis of a protective charm against that power” (82, 83). Apart from the questionable identification of the traveler within the poem with the poet making the poem (and presumably with the reader reading the poem), Cox's interpretation depends upon a reductive psychological theory that links “Stopping by Woods” to true incantatory verse and to nursery rhymes. The individual poetic quality of the poem—the haunting rhythm (of only the latter part of the poem, it should be noted)—has been lost sight of. Earlier in his essay, Cox makes his point from another perspective. Noting the prevalence of woods imagery in Frost's poetry, he says: “Frost … sees the drama of existence as man's willingness to risk himself before the spell of the dark woods. For him self-reliance becomes self-possession, and the victory lies not in the march forward into the wilderness but in the freedom he feels while patrolling the boundary of consciousness” (80). In this venture into poetic biography, he implicitly aligns himself with Lionel Trilling, whose address to Frost on the occasion of Frost's eighty-fifth birthday is another essay in psychological-esthetic theory: “When I began to speak I called your birthday Sophoclean and that word has, I think, controlled everything I have said about you. Like you, Sophocles … was the poet his people loved most. Surely they loved him in some part because he praised their common country. But I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life: they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort” (452). Surely there is truth in what Trilling says, and it is perhaps because there is that Robert Langbaum can say that Frost's world is “seldom very frightening.” The reader at the end of “Stopping by Woods” and “After Apple-Picking” is nearer to being sleepy than to being frightened by or purged of the terrors of the universe. In some remote, abstract way he may be shocked by the world that is depicted in “A Drumlin Woodchuck”; but the poem is a delightfully grim poem (not at all like Oedipus Rex), and much of the success of it is that momentarily the reader becomes a wise old woodchuck like the one who wrote the poem. Trilling loses Frost's poetry in talking about poetry in general. At the same time, one cannot assent to Langbaum's expectations that the people in “Storm Fear” will have the strength to carry on the next day. The catharsis is in the experience of the poem, not in the experience that the poem refers to. And were the latter sort of catharsis relevant, the reader might yet wonder about the fate of Frost's particular farmer. Two of Frost's fellow New Englanders, Amy Lowell and R. P. Tristram Coffin, see such poems as “Storm Fear,” “Home Burial,” and “The Fear” as accurate reflections of a society that had lost its vitality. In her review of North of Boston Lowell speaks of the “left-overs of the old stock, morbid, pursued by phantoms, sinking slowly to insanity.”6
The problem of survival, in and out of the poems, is scrutinized from another standpoint by Yvor Winters, who wonders how well the farmer can withstand the storm if he dwells upon his fears, and how well the reader can confront the modern world if he reads poetry that is dedicated to weltschmerz. Fine word though catharsis is, Winters argues that sensibility leads to sickness: the society that devotes itself to feeling and imagination loses vigor. Winters notes “the vague melancholy” (165) of “The Sound of the Trees,” and he reflects that a poem that rests with vague melancholy is a bad, confused poem; for a poem ought to help the reader to comprehend the human situation. Of all of Frost's critics, Winters perhaps comes closest to an explicit recognition of the mood that dominates the poetry; but he is much more interested in prescribing the proper social function of poetry than in describing the actual quality—individual or collective—of the poems.
Not many critics believe that understanding a poet and his poetry amounts to a game in which the critic chooses his assumptions and works out an analysis that follows from them. Allowing for inevitable differences of perspective and value, most critics would probably assume that some general agreement could be reached about whether Frost has confronted or retreated from social responsibility and whether “Stopping by Woods” is a poem that is devoted to the problem of moral choice. At the same time, most critics would be hesitant about setting up a single inviolable set of assumptions to insure agreement; and occasionally someone attempts to show the merits in approaching a poem from differing assumptions. Applying in turn the assumptions of the new criticism and those of the Chicago critics to the analysis of a single poem, Charles A. McLaughlin writes:
It would seem that the reader or critic, instead of being dismayed at the apparent opposition of these two views of poetic form, should be grateful that a variety of methods are available to enrich his reading of poetry and that he should regret those occasions when any single method attempts to set itself up as the exclusive or “new” way of solving all the questions about poetry or as the only fruitful way of unveiling the humanistic values of great works of art.
The poem that McLaughlin analyzes from the two standpoints is “Stopping by Woods,” and his analysis from the Chicago standpoint (he uses Unger and O'Connor to represent the new criticism) is interesting: he describes a dramatic development of attitudes on the part of the narrator, from casual interest to momentary fascination to rejection. But the significant fact about both of his analyses is not that they proceed from different assumptions, but that they proceed from the same one. “Now I take it,” McLaughlin says in beginning the Chicago analysis, just after he has completed his presentation of Unger and O'Connor's view, “that there is little disagreement that ‘Stopping by Woods’ presents us with a dramatic situation, a moment of moral choice on the part of the speaker of the poem, as was presupposed even in the dialectical analysis just outlined.”7 Since the presupposition is questionable, the light that the Chicago criticism throws upon the poem is likely to distort it as much as the light of the new criticism. McLaughlin is presumably right that a single method is too restrictive; but a multiplicity of methods may be a snare and a delusion. The poem is there, and whether the critic uses a single or a double set of standards, his task is to illuminate the poem.
When John Ciardi published his analysis of “Stopping by Woods” in Saturday Review, he was beset by an outraged public. The response that most pleased him, Ciardi remarked later, came from a man who said only, “Get your big clumsy feet off that miracle.”8 It may be questionable whether the poem is a miracle or a minor lyric, but there is little doubt that it has been trampled down by poetic, psychological, and social theories. Even if the poem does make a choice of social responsibility over estheticism or the death wish, it makes the choice so slightly, so undramatically, that to discuss the choice as the essence of the poem is to distort the poem. It is a poem of undertones and overtones rather than of meaning. Frost once remarked about another lyric, “Neither out Far nor in Deep”: “Poetry is implication. Let implication be implication. Don't try to turn implication into explication. If I had wanted to say anything definite I would have put it into the poem.”9 Being a poet rather than a critic, Frost perhaps undervalues explication. And he perhaps—in this statement—overvalues implication. He is primarily a lyric poet; and, as he says elsewhere, the aim in lyric poetry is not mainly implication: the aim is song.
William Rose Benét, “Wise Old Woodchuck,” Saturday Review of Literature 14 (30 May 1936): 6; Lionel Trilling, “A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode,” Partisan Review 26 (1959): 451; Robert Langbaum, “The New Nature Poetry,” American Scholar 28 (1959): 327; Yvor Winters, The Function of Criticism (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1957), 159-87; Hyatt H. Waggoner, The Heel Of Elohim (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 41; James M. Cox, “Robert Frost and the Edge of the Clearing,” Virginia Quarterly Review 35 (1959): 78, 83.
Lawrance Thompson, Fire and Ice (New York: Henry Holt, 1942), Leonard Unger and William Van O'Connor, Poems for Study (New York: Rinehart, 1953); John Ciardi, “Robert Frost: The Way to the Poem,” Saturday Review of Literature 41 (12 April 1958): 13-15, 65-67. All quotations from Frost's poems come from The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Latham (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969).
Reginald L. Cook, “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems,” American Literature 27 (1956): 66.
Selected Prose of Robert Frost, ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Latham (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 45, 26, 18.
Such suggestiveness is called natural symbolism by René Wellek and Austin Warren in Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 194-95. They refer to “Stopping by Woods” to warn of the hazard of such symbolism to both poet and critic. Sleep, they say, naturally calls to mind death; and thus the poet must ask himself whether he wants to use this suggestiveness in his poem or whether, if he does not want to, he can avoid it; and by the same token the critic must be careful not to assume that the natural symbolic meaning is the actual symbolic meaning that the poet achieves, and he must decide whether there is any confusion between such meanings in the poem. That there may be a confusion of meanings in “Come In” need not detain us in the present discussion. If there is any, it is not, in the opinion of this critic, a significant confusion, since it does not damage the tone of the poem. In this respect, Frost employs with complete success the natural symbolic association of the stars with loneliness and isolation. Consider the similar confidence with which Keats, in “Bright Star,” and Byron, in Childe Harold, rely upon the natural association in beginning two apostrophes to melancholy: “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art— ❙ Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night” and “Ye stars! which are the poetry of heaven! ❙ If in your bright leaves we would read the fate ❙ Of men and empires …”
Amy Lowell, Recognition of Robert Frost, ed. Richard Thornton (New York: Holt, 1937), 48. For Coffin's opinion see New Poetry of New England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1938) 11-24.
Charles A. McLaughlin, “Two Views of Poetic Unity,” University of Kansas City Review 22 (1956): 316, 313.
John Ciardi, “Letter to Letter-Writers,” Saturday Review of Literature 41 (17 May 1958): 15.
Quoted in an untitled note by Cecilia Hennel Hendricks in Explicator 1 (1943): 58.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1179
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 “stopping by” at the Woods's house, or whether it is a “stopping alongside” a stand of trees. To say that the former reading is eliminated by the first line of the poem is merely to say that one has assented to the traditional formatting imposed upon the words of the poem. As we shall see in a moment, those words carry—fatally, as it were—many more signifying possibilities than the narrow range of significations so cunningly, and deceptively, specified by the received format.
But to return for a moment to the “title,” or prefatory material. If we put a period after “Stopping by” the title changes; if we put “Stopping” on a line by itself, then place immediately below it, centered, “by Woods,” and then on a third line, centered, put “On a Snowy Evening” another set of possible signifiers opens up for us (one much closer, perhaps, to what one could find in verse published in certain periodical formats).
Finally, of course, the words may be imagined to have been so arranged as to set all these (and perhaps other) signifying chains in motion, along with the corresponding diversity of signifiers as well as the contextual referents that they evoke. A multiplied text is latently present in these words, a text that reaches out to the equally multiplied textual codes that are socially dispersed in the audience of readers.
But let us move into the body of the poem's text, specifically, into what the traditional poem sets down as the first two lines, which thus appear thus:
Whose woods these are I think I know, His house is in the village, though.
If we ask, once again, whether the final word of this couplet is a common or a proper noun, we begin to see how arbitrary is the traditional text of these words. Furthermore, if we take “Though” to be the name of the village where “His house” is located, we may find ourselves inclined to construct a wholly different poem here, a wholly different set of signifiers. If a village may be called “Though” we may have found ourselves pitched into a world where “concrete realities” are to be imagined as parts or operations of language. If “Though” is imagined as a village in that “world,” that fact may be taken to signify that subordinate clauses are to stand metaphorically for certain types of subordinate political entities, like villages (with the corresponding analogy to be understood as operative—that sentences are “cities,” and so on up (and down) the grammatical hierarchy).
This metaphorical structure will incline one to “read” the text very differently from the reading under which the couplet has traditionally functioned as a couplet. These other readings emerge if, following the lead of the work's traditional arbitrary formulae, we arbitrarily shift the punctuation—for instance:
Whose woods? These are, I think. “I know! His house is in the village Though!”
Whose woods? These are “I think,” “I know,” “His house” is in the village Though.
In the latter case, the text calls attention to the fact that certain words which are arbitrarily arranged to act as points of reference to an extralinguistic field (the place of forests and villages, the place where a man named Woods may be imagined to be living) may equally and at the same time function as parts of a system of pure signifiers. In such a case, what has been set in motion is an allegorical work entirely analogous, for example, to the opening of Charles Olson's “In Cold Hell, In Thicket,” or to the opening of Olson's more famous precursor text, the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
This resonant text calls out to the “woods” in Frost's work, an equally “dark and deep” woods of a self obscured from itself. (And how appropriate it now seems that the text of “Stopping by Woods” should be attached to an author named Frost!) We may name the woods of the modern poem “I think” and “I know” on the Dantean allegorical analogy, and we add the distinctively postmodern touch by noting that this woods exists in purely linguistic space, near a village here named “Though.”
The immediate conventional power impinging on Frost's work is probably not Dante, however, but the late Romantic Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose great and nightmarish work The House of Life seems to be glanced at in Frost's word “house.” The house of Frost's text is partly Rossetti's poetical house, where one frequently encounters a discourse analogous to one which would name a stand of trees “I think” and, alternatively, “I know.” One recalls, for instance, Rossetti's sonnet “Superscription”:
Look on my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell.
The Rossetti text, where the “house of life” is at all points the house of language, a house of pure (and impure) signifiers, allows us at last to appreciate fully the signifying labyrinth into which the Frost text has led us. So bound are we to positivist structures of reading that we initially overlook entirely the strength of the wordplay being carried, and carried out, in those key terms in the poem's title and first line, “Woods” and “woods.” The words are metaphors, of course, but they are metaphors imbedded in a metonymic wordplay that conceals the correspondent (and purely linguistic) signifier, “Woulds” and “woulds.” “Stopping by Woulds” is a poem about subjunctive states of desire, and of the darkness and cold with which they seduce and threaten us. To stop by this “selva oscura” is to confront the promise and the threat of all that we “would” or “would not” encounter and understand.
More than that, however, the text is about how texts signify in the first place. Poetry is the discourse which lays bare, which makes it possible to understand, how all texts—including the text we call “the world”—function. Thematizing the work's textual operations (for example, saying that the poem is about desire and subjunctive states) tends to conceal the more important and powerful communicative exchange executed through the poem. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a display of the heteronomy which Bakhtin, for example, postulated of fictional discourse. That heteronomy is itself a tool, a signifier, by means of which human beings, as individuals and as groups, define the possibilities of their lives.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882
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 simple exposition of this poem in the light of the Marcelian process of reflection. The poem serves as an illustration of Marcel's philosophy in particular, and of existentialism in general.
Gabriel Marcel's contention is that philosophy is mainly reflective. To reflect is to be conscious of the events in one's situation. For Marcel, this is even synonymous with noticing a “break in the daily chain of habit.” But what is this “break” in one's routine that catches attention and causes reflection?
Marcel points to the sad fate of the world in that it has become functional—that is, the interaction between the active members of the community has become mechanical. People have ceased to be human beings. They have come to resemble objects, used and treated as means to an end. This being the case, the world has “lost its heart.” The world we are living in is broken.
However, this “brokenness” of the world is not something that we easily notice. It is like an illness that does not give any pain. In fact, we can really live with it—until something, an event, happens that forces us to give this illness our full attention. This is the “break” in the routine that Marcel refers to.
The event that prompts reflection does not have to be a traumatic one. It can happen in a quiet place, where we sit down to take a little respite from our daily tasks. It can happen while witnessing a mother quiet her crying baby. It can strike us while taking a walk along a busy street. Or, it can occur as we watch a dead leaf fall to the ground. What is important is that something is brought to our attention and we are forced to notice it in all its clarity and vividness. Then, we think.
This sudden rift in our “unconscious” living is what Marcel calls primary reflection. It is destructive of the routine. Its tendency is to separate or to sever us from our ordinary selves. And for this reason, in this stage, we recover our lost selves. We start to breathe again, we stop being a mere tool or a mere gadget in a complex whole.
This is not the end of reflection, however. Marcel believes that we cannot leave the world broken. We must repair it. We must come back to it, carrying our redeemed “personhood”. We must engage in secondary reflection. We go back to our daily pattern of life but, instead of going about our usual tasks unconsciously, we engage in them with full awareness of our being. We know the “why's” of our activities. We learn to relate as persons and not merely as objects.
“STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING” BY ROBERT FROST
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.
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. He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
The poem gives us the picture of a person on a horse, passing by someone's woods on a snowy evening. Mesmerized by the scenario—the beautiful contrast between the white snow and the dark sky—the rider stops and contemplates on it. Then, after a while, leaves.
The poem does not tell us anything else about the persona. We know that s/he is just passing by these woods and that s/he is not very familiar with its owner. We do not know why, at this time, in this weather, s/he is travelling on a horse. For that matter, we do not know what promises s/he intends to keep and why s/he cannot stay or rest longer in the woods. We only know that s/he still has a long way to travel (“Miles to go”) before s/he finally gets her physical rest (sleep).
Let us read a story into the poem.
We can see from the first stanza that the persona is not of the place. S/he is familiar with the woods but his/her knowledge of the place is not certain. S/he is not very comfortable stopping there, but since s/he thinks that the owner of the house is in the village, s/he feels quite safe.
Here, we can already see signs of Marcel's primary reflection. The persona, usually just passing by the woods, stops and focuses his/her attention on it and ponders. This little break in the routine is prompted by aesthetics. S/he cannot resist watching the snow cover the whole place.
The horse, on the other hand, has no need for aesthetics. The persona already anticipates the reaction of the animal: “bHe must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near.” The horse is conditioned to do a particular duty and he has become so familiar with the routine that he can easily notice digressions if they occur. He is probably used to going from one place to another and he probably takes it for granted that when he is asked to stop, it is only because they have reached their destination or his rider wants to stop for food and drink. In any case, the horse never expects to stop by a place like the woods. Thus, this particular stop confuses him.
The persona, on the other hand, is aware of the horse's uneasiness. S/he knows that he senses the unusual event—the break in the routine:
“He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake.”
This stop, or primary reflection, is destructive in the sense that it causes delay in the journey and it ruins the pattern. Probably for the first time, the persona thinks. However, we are not given the details of her reflection. We only know that she is appreciating the scenario and that she is taking the opportunity to rest. Until we read the following lines:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep.”
In these lines, we get some clue. The persona, having reflected, having severed herself/himself from the usual pattern of her/his life, decides to go on and continue the journey in spite of the lovely place. The temptation to stay longer is here. But s/he turns away and chooses to go on. S/he knows his/her responsibilities.
This state is what Marcel calls secondary reflection. After the gap, the break in the pattern, the persona “repairs” it and follows it again. But this time, s/he is already a product of reflection. S/he knows why s/he does what s/he does. S/he knows her choice—that in spite of the things s/he misses, s/he still resolves to fulfill her/his promises. Before reflection, s/he was only a functional being, moving and reaching destinations like a machine. Now, s/he is equipped with awareness. S/he ceases being mechanical. S/he becomes a person with goals, with “promises to keep.”
“And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
As we have already pointed out, if we discuss the poem in its literal sense, we only see a picture of a rider being enchanted by the beauty of the woods in snow. We see him/her stopping for a little respite, and then continuing the journey. We can say that s/he leaves right away because s/he has a deadline or an appointment and that s/he cannot be delayed. We can literally interpret the last two lines as a sign of weariness and exhaustion and a strong desire for sleep or physical rest.
However, looking at it from the point of view of existential philosophy, we are given a different kind of person. We are given a Sisyphus who, after watching the boulder roll down for the umpteenth time and knowing that it will happen over and over forever, still returns to the foot of the hill to retrieve his rock and push it up to the summit again. We are given a Dasein who plans ahead, who has goals to reach and tries his/her very best to reach them. We are given an Existenz who sacrifices temporal pleasures for the sake of responsibility, who experiences shipwrecks and takes “the leap.” We are given a Pour-soi who is always on his/her toes, anguished but has a view of his/her virgin future which has yet to be created.
The persona in the poem is tired. S/he is weary of the task. S/he longs for rest. But this is not necessarily physical exhaustion. S/he can be tired of life, tired of its absurdities, as Camus would say. But s/he knows that to give up—to stay and watch the woods fill up with snow—is not the solution. S/he knows the burden that s/he has to carry but s/he chooses it and leaves the place of momentary pleasure. S/he knows that in the end, her/his fulfillment of those promises is the meaning, the definition of her/his being.
We look at the kind of person that the rider represents and compare it with the other kind of person represented by the horse. Personified, the horse is a das Man. He is so used to the pattern of his life and is content with it. He is “given to everydayness”. He does not stop to think. He is an en-soi, already complete in his essence that nothing new can ever happen in his life. He has no awareness of responsibility for he has no idea of freedom. Nothing, not even aesthetics, can affect his life. To people like him, Marcel blames the “brokenness” of the world.
In the end, we see the two—the persona and the horse—leaving. The horse moves at the signal given to him by his rider. They go on with their journey. But we know that for the persona this particular trip is different. S/he has a renewed “personhood”. The horse, on the other hand, will soon forget the anomalous ‘stop over’ and not know anything more than what he knew before.
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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 music (‘watch … woods’, ‘his … fill … with’) of the last. Clearing and wilderness, law and freedom, civilization and nature, fact and dream: these oppositions reverberate throughout American writing. And they are registered here in Frost's own quietly ironic contrast between the road along which the narrator travels, connecting marketplace to marketplace, promoting community and culture—and the white silence of the woods, where none of the ordinary limitations of the world seem to apply. In a minor key, they are caught also in the implicit comparison between the owner of these woods, who apparently regards them as a purely financial investment (he lives in the village) and the narrator who sees them, at least potentially, as a spiritual one.
This contrast between what might be termed, rather reductively perhaps, ‘realistic’ and ‘romantic’ attitudes is then sustained through the next two stanzas: the commonsensical response is now playfully attributed to the narrator's horse which, like any practical being, wants to get on down the road to food and shelter. The narrator himself, however, continues to be lured by the mysteries of the forest just as the Romantic poets were lured by the mysteries of otherness, sleep and death. And, as before, the contrast is a product of tone and texture as much as dramatic intimation: the poem communicates its debate in how it says things as much as in what it says. So, the harsh gutturals and abrupt movement of lines like, ‘He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake’, give verbal shape to the matter-of-fact attitude attributed to the horse, just as the soothing sibilants and gently rocking motion of the lines that follow this (‘The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake’) offer a tonal equivalent of the strange, seductive world into which the narrator is tempted to move. ‘Everything that is written’, Frost once said, ‘is as good as it is dramatic’; and in a poem like this the words of the poem become actors in the drama.
The final stanza of “Stopping by Woods” does not resolve its tensions; on the contrary, it rehearses them in particularly memorable language.
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.
Having paid tribute to the dangerous seductiveness of the woods, the narrator seems to be trying to shake himself back into commonsense reality by invoking his ‘promises’ or mundane responsibilities. The last line is repeated, however; and while at first it seems little more than a literal reference to the journey he has to complete (and so a way of telling himself to continue on down the road), the repetition gives it particular resonance. This could, after all, be a metaphorical reference to the brief span of human life and the compulsion this puts the narrator under to take risks and explore the truth while he can. Only a few ‘miles’ to go before ‘I sleep’ in death: such a chilling memento mori perhaps justifies stopping by the woods in the first place and considering the spiritual quest implicit in the vision they offer. Perhaps: “the point is that neither narrator nor reader can be sure. ‘The poem is the act of having the thought”, Frost insisted; it is process rather than product, it invites us to share in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not simply to look at their results. So the most a piece like “Stopping by Woods” will offer—and it is a great deal—is an imaginative resolution of its tensions: the sense that its conflicts and irresolutions have been given appropriate dramatic expression, revelation and equipoise.
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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 counters in mens animi, the feeling thought of active mind. The poem is made to make the mind just that. It unsettles certitude even in so small a matter as the disposition of accents in the opening line: “Whose woods these are I think I know.” The monosyllabic tetrameter declares itself as it declares. Yet the “sound of sense” is uncertain. As an expression of doubtful guessing, “think” opposes “know,” with its air of certitude. The line might be read to emphasize doubt (Whose woods these are I think I know) or confident knowledge (Whose woods these are I think I know). Once the issue is introduced, even a scrupulously “neutral” reading points it up. The evidence for choosing emphasis is insufficient to the choice.
One of Frost's characteristic devices is to set up and undermine a case of the pathetic fallacy in such a way that both construction and collapse stay actively in play. In “Stopping by Woods,” the undermining nearly precedes the setting up. “Must” gives the game away, as the speaker (exercising indeterminacy) interferes with the reality he observes, imposing his thoughts and feelings on it. “Darkest” contributes to the pattern. Is the evening, say, the winter solstice, literally darkest? Could it be, given the way that snow concentrates light? Or is “darkest” a judgment the speaker projects? In the next stanza, the speaker's “reading into” nature intensifies to the point where harness bells “actually” speak. Then, as if to emphasize that such speaking is a human addition to a speechless scene, we hear that the only other sound is the “sweep” of light wind on softly falling snow. Those two categories of evidence, the self-consciously imposed and therefore suspect yet understandable human one, and the apparently indifferent yet comfortingly beautiful natural one, seem to produce the description of the woods as “lovely” and “dark and deep,” a place of both (dangerous) attraction and (self-protective) threat. The oppositions are emphasized by Frost's intended punctuation—a comma after “lovely”; none after “dark,” and the double doubleness of attraction and threat complicates the blunt “But” that begins the next line. Which woods, if any, is being rejected? How far does recalling that one has “promises to keep” go toward keeping them in fact?
The poem's formal qualities, while not obviously “experimental,” also contribute to its balancing act. The closing repetition emphasizes the speaker's commitment to his responsibilities. It also emphasizes the repetitive tedium that makes the woods an attractive alternative to those responsibilities. This leaves open the question of just how much arguing is left to be done before any action is taken. The rhyme scheme contributes to the play. Its linked pattern seems completed and resolved in the final stanza, underlining the effect of closure: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. But is a repeated word a rhyme? Is the resolution excessive; does the repeated line work as a sign of forced closure? None of this is resolved; it is kept in complementary suspension. Similarly, the poem is clearly a made thing, an object or artifact, as its formal regularities attest; it is also an event in continuous process, as its present participial title announces and as the present tense employed throughout suggests. At the same time, the poem has a narrative thrust that tempts us to see the speaker move on (even though he does not), just as too much insistence on the poem as stranded in the present tense falsely makes it out as static. In the words of “Education by Poetry,” “A thing, they say, is an event. … I believe it is almost an event.” Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing, those acts are the life of the poem, of the poet making and the reader taking it. Indeterminacy and complementarity are implicit in them.
Frost typically produces effects like the ones described, and he does so in a variety of ways. Similar to strategies in “Stopping by Woods” are those of “The Wood-Pile”—with the “small bird” in the role of the “little horse”—and of “Design,” with its subversive string of adjectives, pseudo-rhetorical questions, and “exaggerated” rhyme scheme. A related device is Frost's tendency to conclude poems with apparently certain and resolving epigrams which, upon examination, prove to be enigmas reopening the very issues they had seemed to close.1 Other poems use other methods for keeping opposites in play. The elaborate story of the mad uncle told by the subjective monologist of “A Servant to Servants” works (in the deliberate absence of any way to know which of the two it is) both as an historical and psychological explanation of her own plight and as her imaginative imposition of color on a drab life, that is, as her creative response to her plight.2 The several voices of such poems as “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “The Hill Wife,” or “The Death of the Hired Man” multiply points of view not in order to choose between or among them but in order to show any point of view indeterminate, and to leave all points of view as unresolved complements in action. In such poems as “The Oven Bird,” “Desert Places,” “Come In,” or “Birches,” the drama is in the combined building up and breaking down of a central metaphor. The last deliberately confuses poetry and (scientific) truth, so that they become poetry's truth and truth's fiction. One way it does so is by assigning to the “matter of fact” voice of truth the extravagantly poetic image of the bowed trees as girls kneeling to dry their hair in the sun. In “Birches,” as elsewhere, action (balancing, unbalancing) and event (going and coming back; movement toward, not to) are insisted upon.
In a way, “Birches” marks a turning point, a self-consciousness about inclusion that leads to rather static and programmatic versions of complementarity in such later poems as “West-Running Brook.” The later poems also more often choose sides, whether because of a shift toward more “social,” “light” verse,3 or under the pressures of age, personal suffering, political developments, or public and critical responses to the work. Perhaps they more often take sides because of the commitment to “definiteness of position,” to “passionate preference,” that was always an aspect of Frost's stance in the world. Perhaps they are simply another part of the larger complementary inclusiveness that marks his art. What Frost says of wisdom in “Boeotian” is true of his poetry as well: “I will not have it systematic.” Nonetheless, the major portion of Frost's finest work, early and late, is a profoundly provisional poetry which reflects, expresses, and enacts ideas emerging also in the physics of his time, ideas that are central to our age. In that, he is, if never modernist, most modern.
See Robert Langbaum, “Hardy, Frost, and the Question of Modernist Poetry,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 58 (1982), 72.
See Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 113-18.
Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pp. 206ff.
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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 remembrance,” right off at dawn, after completing “New Hampshire”—though he later revised the second stanza. The most amazing thing about this work is that three of the fifteen lines (the last line repeats the previous one) are transformations from other poems. “He gives his harness bells a shake” comes from Scott's “The Rover” (in Palgrave): “He gave the bridle-reins a shake.” “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” comes from Thomas Lovell Beddoes' “The Phantom Wooer”: “Our bed is lovely, dark, and sweet.” The concluding “And miles to go before I sleep” comes from Keats' “Keen Fitful Gusts”: “And I have many miles on foot to fare.” Though these three lines are variations from other poets, Frost, writing in the tradition of English verse, makes them original and new, and integrates them perfectly into his own poem.
The theme of “Stopping by Woods”—despite Frost's disclaimer—is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year. The speaker is powerfully drawn to these woods and—like Hans Castorp in the “Snow” chapter of Mann's The Magic Mountain—wants to lie down and let the snow cover and bury him. The third quatrain, with its drowsy, dreamlike line: “Of easy wind and downy flake,” opposes the horse's instinctive urge for home with the man's subconscious desire for death in the dark, snowy woods. The speaker says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” but he resists their morbid attraction.
Two years later Hemingway wrote of resisting a morbid impulse in “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925): “In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through. … In the half light, the fishing would be tragic. … Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.” Frost's character, like Hemingway's, is only half in love with easeful death: the other half wants to move on and fulfill the promise of life and the promise of poetry. Vladimir Nabokov, an impressive poet as well as novelist, paid Frost a perceptive tribute in Pale Fire (1962) by praising his masterful repetition and closure, showing how the last two lines move from the realistic to the philosophical realm: “Frost is the author of one of the greatest short poems in the English language, a poem that every American boy knows by heart, about the wintry woods, and the dreary dusk, and the little horsebells of gentle remonstration in the dull darkening air, and that prodigious and poignant end—two closing lines identical in every syllable, but one personal and physical, the other metaphysical and universal.”1
New Hampshire, Frost's most underrated book, revealed his supremacy in shorter poems. It received superficial but favorable reviews from Padraic Colum, Mark Van Doren, Mark De Wolfe Howe and the faithful Louis Untermeyer, and won his first Pulitzer Prize, in 1924.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Hell, trans. Dorothy Sayers (Baltimore, 1968), pp. 271, 274; John Crowe Ransom, “Thoughts on the Poetic Discontent” (1925), Selected Essays, ed. Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle (Baton Rouge, 1976), 32; Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River,” Short Stories, p. 231; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962; New York, 1969), p. 145.
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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.” “Stopping,” describes an unremarkable moment: a driver stopping his horse-drawn buggy to look at the woods, his horse shaking the harness bells which the driver thinks is the horse's way of saying, “There must be some mistake,” and the driver deciding it is time to move on. It is not known who the person is, nor whether male or female. Neither is it known from where or to where the driver is going, nor why, and the promises the driver must keep also go unexplained. Finally no clue is supplied as to where this scene takes place. Here then, is a poem that functions as a perfect vehicle upon which to heap meaning, since, one is likely to think, the mere situation of stopping and looking at woods surely cannot be all there is to the poem. The reader feels compelled to read into and perhaps even overread the poem. Frost complained that the poem was overinterpreted, especially when critics remarked that “sleep” probably meant death. Still Frost should be suspected some good-natured trickery here: the poem seems deliberately fashioned to lure its readers into either a simplistic underreading or an anxious overreading. The poem itself comes to function like the “lovely” woods it describes: one is either prone to simply drive by and regard the snowy woods as if a beautiful landscape painting or photograph, or, on the other hand, tempted to plunge into the woods, become overwhelmed by the “forces” or the “deeper meanings” of the forest.
Just imagine four possible (over)readings of the poem. First, the driver contemplates the purity of life without sin (snow), but decides one must move on—spurred on by the bestial horse—before living as sinless a life as if one were sleeping or dead. Or the interpretation can be just the opposite: the reader contemplates a fallen nature represented by the woods and wants to indulge in sin, but at the last moment is reined in by the harnessed horse. Third: the driver contemplates the coldness of the snow and is tempted to give up all relationships and become a hermit, but the horse reminds the driver of another presence-in-need and the driver is reminded that a world of relationships is crucial. Fourth, the driver is suicidal since it is the “darkest evening” of the year and wants to walk out into the snowy, dark and deep woods and perish. But the living and dependent horse calls him back with a shake of the harness bells. There are, of course, many more possible interpretations, for instance, the driver resists the siren song of the contemplative life in nature and chooses a life of responsibility and activity in culture. But whatever the interpretation, the question is, if reading after reading can be spun out, what is the point?
On the other hand it can be decided that if the poem can be read in almost any fashion it becomes meaningless. Adopting one interpretation then seems like the superior way in which to come to terms with “Stopping.” The interpretation most likely to result is the one that best fits what the reader might think in a similar situation. Or, with research into Frost, one might adopt the reading that best fits with Frost's outlook and sensibilities even if it grates against one's own.
Problems, however, exist with either strategy. With the multiplication of interpretations, the poem turns into a runny and complicated mush. On the other hand, if only one “best” explanation is settled for, the poem turns into a thin broth fit only for fragile intestinal tracts. Instead of settling for either the overly processed concoction or decoction of Frost's poem, it might be better to distance ourselves a little bit, study how it is the poem lures the reader into (and here I switch metaphors) either using the poem like an old, nicked-up knife, employing it for almost any kind of job, even tasks for which it is ill-suited, or, conversely, seldom “using” it, as if the poem were some marble bust on a pedestal in an alcove. Frost wished that poems would be studied more as performances or processes and less used or regarded as finished objects. This means attempting to understand why the poem has the shape it does, and contains the words it contains, all for the purpose of finding out in what ways the poem best functions. This may be the preferable solution to dealing with an object that will serve us and it better by using it as neither a universal tool nor a fragile and expensive museum piece.
Within a horizon of rather traditional formal limitation based on the number four, that is, iambic tetrameter (four beats or pairs of syllables consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable) in four stanzas of four-lines each, Frost chiselled out for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” an ingenious form of interlocking rhyme: the third unrhymed line of the first three stanzas provokes the subsequent stanza's rhymed sound. Further, Frost repeated the last two lines of the poem partially as a matter of form: “What it [the repetend or repeated lines] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza. … I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.” What results is a satisfying presentation of traditional form with an individual variation demanded by the poem's own structure. Upon a foundation of tradition, Frost erected a canny interlocking rhyme scheme, upon which he attached a consistent and efficient way of solving a formal problem—so elegant is Frost's solution of the repetend for an ending, that its formal perfection is likely to go unnoticed even as it attracts us with its peaceful, sleeplike repetition. The four stanzas, the four lines per stanza with four beats in each line, and the four end-rhymes yield a kind of rational object, one made of straight lines that produces a kind of box-like or grid structure. Such a structure can remind one of conventionality, of a person who does the usual or the normal, as when someone says, “He's square,” or “She's straight.” Frost himself said that “Stopping” illustrated a “commitment to convention.” Form, then, appears to be reinforcing content, the fourfold structure lending itself to the driver's decision to move on, to stop dreaming and get back to a world of responsibilities and practicality.
The first stanza sets a rather mischievous tone for the poem. First, worried that the owner of the woods might see him stopping, the driver seems gratified the owner lives in the village. Such meditations are common to an environment in which private property replaces unboundaried nature. Stopping is increasingly called “loitering,” “trespassing,” or it simply arouses suspicion so that stoppers are self-conscious about stopping. One must, as the police say, “Keep moving,” if one is to remain above suspicion. But just when the driver has established his pleasure at being above suspicion, the second stanza establishes the horse's discomfort. It is not the woods that bothers the horse so much, the driver thinks, as the absence of a farmhouse on the “darkest evening of the year.” This evening might be the winter solstice on December 22, the longest night of the year. With the scene being so dark and devoid of human presence, the reader might begin to share the horse's, and maybe the driver's, mild discomfort. The third stanza intensifies the solitude of the scene through attention to sound: the only sounds being the momentary shake of harness bells, and the ongoing “easy wind” and softly falling snow. Here the reader might be simultaneously pulled in by the increasing mystery or quiet of the natural scene and the endearing way in which the driver seems to understand or overinterpret his horse's shake. As abruptly as driver and horse seem to have stopped, however, the driver resolves to go and leave behind this at least somewhat alluring forest, even if the series of adjectives, “lovely, dark, and deep” convey a complex mix of attraction and fear. The reasons for leaving the woods the driver offers are those very unspecific “promises to keep” and “miles to go.” It seems like the driver is reticent to give any more information. Fortunately or unfortunately, the driver's laconic reasons are all that readers have to go on. In the end, what Frost produces is a poem that seems to hover in the zone of perfection, a poem that explains nearly everything and nothing at the very same time. In an end that never ends, the very problem with this poem is its perfection, its quality of demanding more and more discussion about something for which discussion seems pointless. As unsatisfactory as it may seem, these woods can neither be penetrated nor left behind; it is simply time to go.
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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 Nevertheless, as my discussion of Frost's poetry so far indicates, to characterize the sentimental as defined solely by the emotional realm oversimplifies at best. What we need to interrogate more narrowly are kinds of emotion, the means for their evocation in all poetry, and the interaction of appeals to feeling and intellect, along with the relative position of narrator, author, and reader.
With these ideas in mind we should notice the gendered quality of the language that protests my choice of weak over strong poems, with stronger being a code for “more masculine” and detached and weaker invoking “more feminine” and “sentimental.” Frost's use of the images, rhetoric, and structures of his mainstream nineteenth-century American precursors is embarrassing because he crosses an invisible line into feminine territory—problematic for any male modernist (and for many female ones as well) but especially for Frost, who constructs himself as so publicly and rigidly masculine. Professional readers disregard these echoes in Frost's poetry because we are trained to be uncomfortable with “excessive” emotion—that in men and in ourselves as “critical” and “objective” readers. A Boy's Will is in fact resolutely floral and often unapologetically sentimental, but, as my own language indicates, it remains difficult to interrogate the negative valuation of the tradition that precedes him. As we have seen, later modern-minded readers could easily ignore the feminine echoes in these poems, dismiss many as Hallmark efforts, or, alternatively and more customarily, associate them with a male poetic tradition or recuperate them within the “harder,” skeptical modernism of his later work, in effect retaining the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow (and in the process reinforcing their own epistemological and cultural authority).
In this context we might consider “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which intimates the affiliations in Frost's “better” poetry with the nineteenth-century feminine poetic tradition. I will cite only its conclusion, which focuses first on the speaker's “little horse”:
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
(CP [Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays], 3)
The poem as a whole, of course, encodes many of the tensions between popular and elite poetry. For example, it appears in an anthology of children's writing alongside Amy Lowell's “Crescent Moon,” Joyce Kilmer's “Trees,” and Edward Lear's “Owl and the Pussy-Cat.”2 Pritchard situates it among a number of poems that “have … repelled or embarrassed more highbrow sensibilities,” which suggests the question: “haven't these poems [‘The Pasture,’ ‘Stopping by Woods …,’ ‘Birches,’ ‘Mending Wall’] been so much exclaimed over by people whose poetic taste is dubious or hardly existent, that on these grounds alone Frost is to be distrusted?” The views represented—and the representations of the poem itself, affiliated with the work of Dickinson, Longfellow, Dante, and the Romantics—range from emphasis on its gentility to its modernist ambiguity. Nevertheless, more than one critic underscores its threat to individualism, its “dangerous prospect of boundarilessness,” which suggests the masculine conception of poetic selfhood with which the poem is commonly framed.3
In apparent harmony with these views the poem appears almost entirely restrained in its emotion; we are given only glimpses: “the darkest evening of the year,” “the woods are lovely, dark and deep.” It is not from the poem's language—or, for that matter, structure, which is as predictable as Thaxter's “Alone”—that the stream of emotion flows. Rather, as in “My November Guest,” the season and the elegiac tone provide the link with Frost's antecedents. Walker observes of nineteenth-century women writers that “at mid-century the seasons were especially popular with Indian Summer a particular favorite, perhaps because its juxtaposition of different seasonal moods helped a poet to illustrate her mixed feelings about so much in her life and culture.”4 Seasons were a conventional means to illustrate feelings, as in Helen Hunt Jackson's “‘Down to Sleep’”:
November woods are bare and still; November days are clear and bright; Each noon burns up the morning's chill; The morning's snow is gone by night; Each day my steps grow slow, grow light, As through the woods I reverent creep, Watching all things lie “down to sleep.”
I never knew before what beds, Fragrant to smell, and soft to touch, The forest sifts and shapes and spreads; I never knew before how much Of human sound there is in such Low tones as through the forest sweep When all wild things lie “down to sleep.”
Each day I find new coverlids Tucked in and more sweet eyes shut tight; Sometimes the viewless mother bids Her ferns kneel down full in my sight; I hear their chorus of “good night,” And half I smile, and half I weep, Listening while they lie “down to sleep.”
November woods are bare and still; November days are bright and good; Life's noon burns up life's morning chill; Life's night rests feet which long have stood; Some warm soft bed, in field or wood, The mother will not fail to keep, Where we can “lay us down to sleep.”(5)
Jackson's poem relies on associations with the mother as well as the seasonal metaphor to make its point, making explicit what Frost's intimates: his speaker's desire to merge with the lovely, snow-clad woods suggests a desire to merge with the mother (Mother Nature) as strong as Jackson's. Having removed the traces of religiosity encoded in the refrain “down to sleep,” a child's nighttime prayer to God, Frost's speaker nevertheless evinces his prayerful attitude in “the woods are lovely, dark and deep,” as well as in the hymnlike regularity of the stanzas. And, in the affectionate reference to “my little horse” reminiscent of the cow-calf image in “The Pasture,” he suggests the connection between human and animal parallel to Jackson's explicit observation: “I never knew before how much / Of human sound there is in such / Low tones as through the forest sweep / When all wild things lie ‘down to sleep.’” “Sweep,” of course, recurs in Frost's quiet poem: “The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” Though probably accidental, Frost's echoing of the sweep-sleep rhyme indicates some of the emotional resonances and connections, especially with “weep,” itself embedded in “sweep,” that are explicit in Jackson. Finally, Jackson's narrator acknowledges only slightly more directly the movement toward age and death that Frost's suggests: “Each day my steps grow slow, grow light / As through the woods I reverent creep.” The subjectivity of both Frost's and Jackson's poems is simultaneously individual and representative, suggesting that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a feminine poem with close connections to its popular antecedents.6
Once again we can trace the emotional resonance of Frost's poem back to the concrete situation that helped engender it. Shortly before Christmas of 1905, Frost had made an unsuccessful trip into town to sell eggs in order to raise money for his children's Christmas presents. “Alone in the driving snow, the memory of his years of hopeful but frustrated struggle welled up, and he let his long-pent feelings out in tears.”7 The intensity of this tearful moment translates into the affective content that permeates but never overwhelms “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The fact that the poem would be written seventeen years after the moment that it reflected testifies to the deep suffering that this experience engendered; too painful to be dwelt upon, it would be only with time and distance that the emotions of that awful moment could be balanced, in a “momentary stay against confusion,” by the comforting restraint of formal expression.
Jane Tompkins, “Me and My Shadow,” in The Intimate Critique, Autobiographical Literary Criticism, ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 25-26.
Marjorie Barrows, ed., One Hundred Best Poems for Boys and Girls (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1930), 108, 48, 96, 79-80.
Pritchard, Lives of the Modern Poets, 113; Oster, Toward Robert Frost, 158, II, 148-56; Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, 235, 179. See also Donald J. Greiner, “The Indispensible Robert Frost,” in Critical Essays on Robert Frost, ed. Philip L. Gerber (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), 232.
Walker, intro., American Women Poets, xxv.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Female Poets of America (New York: James Miller, 1877), 459.
One might sensibly question whether or not all elegies are to a greater or lesser degree sentimental.
Walsh, Into My Own, 130, 251.