illustration of a snowy forest with a cabin in the distance

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In this poem, Frost uses imagery, connotation, and repetition in order to convey the idea that nature is a tranquil place that can make us feel peaceful when little else does. Frost uses a visual image when the speaker describes watching the "woods fill up with snow." We can easily imagine the sight of the snow piling deeper and deeper around the tall brown trees in this forested area. Frost also uses an auditory image when the speaker describes the only other sound he hears—other than his horse's harness bells jingling—as being the "sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The sound of the wind shushing through the trees and sweeping up the soft and fluffy snowflakes would be next to nothing, but the specific description is so much more effective in setting the scene than simply describing the woods as nearly silent.

Further, the poem uses words like easy, downy, lovely, and deep, all of which have positive connotations. These words, along with the images I've already described, combine to create a mood of tranquility and calm. Despite the fact that this is the "darkest evening of the year," and the speaker finds himself alone in the woods—circumstances which could make feel one uneasy or even fearful—this speaker seems to revel in the quiet and the darkness and the beauty he finds around him.

Finally, the repetition of the penultimate line—"And miles to go before I sleep"—conveys a yearning, or the sense of longing that the speaker has, to stay here. Although he clearly wishes to remain here, at peace in these woods, he feels that he has commitments which he has no choice but to honor. He has "promises to keep" that prevent him from resting here for long. He, in fact, has quite a long way to go—"miles" in a horse-drawn vehicle—before he can stop for a real rest. It is obvious, however, that he feels drawn to remain in this peaceful place, set apart from the village and anyone who might disrupt the tranquility he feels here.

Forms and Devices

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Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer in 1923 that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would be his “best bid for remembrance.” Frost’s instincts were correct, but like Walt Whitman’s famous “Captain, My Captain,” Frost’s poem is often remembered for all the wrong reasons. Part of its appeal, surely, is its simple and accessible narrative, which contains only sixteen words that are more than one syllable. In addition, Frost’s end-stopped lines, accentuated by the insistent rhyme, make the poem easy to remember.

Frost, born in California, worked hard at developing the persona for which he is now mostly known—the farmer-poet from New England, the writer of Currier & Ives miniatures. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is Frost’s most memorable “genre study” in his “New England” manner, though examination of the poem reveals nothing distinctively regional about it at all. Despite Frost’s reputation as a regionalist, his lyrics are generally so underdescribed that they tend toward allegory or parable. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is an example of Frost’s art in this respect: It gains its power by suggestion and implication, in its stark understatement, powerfully conveying a depth and fullness of human experience. It is, as Frost remarked, “loaded with ulteriority.”

Criticism of the poem has generally treated it allegorically or biographically, and it is easy to see why. Like “The Road Not Taken,” another frequently misread lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is almost earnest in its simplicity, though close attention to the...

(This entire section contains 650 words.)

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text shows it to be more crafty than at first it appears. For example, as is often the case in Frost’s first-person lyrics, the speaker of the poem is not to be mistaken for the poet himself, nor is the “I” in a Frost lyric always credible or aware of the complexity of his reflections.

Thus, in this poem, the speaker indicates that his horse thinks it “queer” for them to stop, though it is evident that whatever the horse may think or feel, it is the speaker who projects his own anxiety onto the horse. The poem is constructed as the speaker’s reflections of the event, and the first line indicates the speaker’s sense that the woods are owned. Thus, some nameless feeling of impropriety or perhaps social violation keeps him from his ease. Consequently, his abrupt dismissal of the wood’s allure and his lofty response that he has “promises to keep,” though idealistic and possibly true, sounds like a dodge. Mistaking the speaker for Frost himself, one could miss the author’s implied criticism of the speaker’s sentimentality—who avoids the issue of why he stops by taking refuge in rhetoric and cliché.

To read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as simply a story about a weary traveler longing for the comforts of home, or even to allegorize it as the journey of Everyman, is to miss the subtle qualities that identify it as a Frost lyric. For one thing, Frost balances the onward rhythmic pull of the verse against the obvious stasis of the poetic scene itself: The speaker never arrives, nor really leaves; he is simply always stopping. Frost also arranges the natural scene so as to heighten the drama of the encounter and to reveal its symbolic density. Finally, Frost’s sense of dramatic and contextual irony undercut the simplicity of the narrative. After all, despite the speaker’s confident assurance about where he is going and the miles he has yet to go, his restiveness (projected onto the horse) and the vagueness of the future “promises” he must keep reveal his assurance to be, in a word, a fiction. This is an important point for Frost. Frost celebrated the necessity of imaginative extravagance in human affairs, but he knew well enough that the imagination traps as well as frees.

Historical Context

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"Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" was first published in 1923, when the pace of social growth was in the process of breaking out into a gallop. In all areas of life, new ways of looking at established ideas suddenly rose up and challenged tradition. In literature, old formal structures were redefined by the writings of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot; in art, Dadaism was a short-lived revolution but Cubism arrived to stay; mainstream architects started using the revolutionary ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright; and musicians including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet invented America's indigenous music, jazz. The ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein were not just the business of intellectuals anymore, but were discussed openly at dinner tables and in magazines on the grocer's rack. This sudden breakout pace of social change would naturally make people uncomfortable if they were used to slower times. Many readers probably felt like the narrator of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" who takes a few quiet moments with nature before going on to fulfill obligations.

Often, discussions about the flood of new ideas in the 1920s will focus attention on the end of World War I in 1919. More than any war that came before it, this war made people question the value of human existence, as advances in long-range weaponry and in vehicles to shift troops quickly across long distances, and the first use of airplanes for combat, expanded the scope of human experience while crushing individual lives. As a result, many of the literary figures of the 1920s are said to have felt a sense of alienation, as if the tie between their individual lives and the world in general had been severed. This made it easy for them to break with tradition. American artists in particular became even more alienated when they found they could live much more cheaply in France than they could at home because the American dollar kept rising: in 1919 a dollar bought eight francs, in 1923 it was worth sixteen, and by 1926 it bought twenty-five francs. Separated from the American tradition, these artists could look at their country more objectively, and many chose a new style to express this new view. Robert Frost, who had lived in England from 1912 to 1915 when his literary career was just getting started, may have been able to get a clearer look at American values from that distance, but it did not lead him to a revolution in style. The words he wrote about poet Edward Arlington Robinson in 1935 were equally true about Frost himself—that he "stayed content with the old-fashioned way to be new."

Another type of alienation that became commonly known by mainstream Americans in the 1920s was the Marxist idea of "alienation of labor." Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, the world had become increasingly industrialized, which meant that a generation that had grown up on farms, as Frost had, was now for the most part living in cities. For workers who made their livings in factories, this meant selling their time to their employers during working hours. For intellectuals, it meant that society valued a factory over a stream or a meadow, because the factory provided jobs. Writers pointed out the double disgrace of workers who trampled nature while selling their own lives away for twelve or fourteen hours a day. The Russian revolution of 1917 was seen as a triumph for Communism, and it gave laborers hope that the trend of having power collect in the hands of a few rich men could be reversed, so that people could control their own destinies. In the 1920s, Communist organizations flourished across America, as did all labor unions and workers' organizations. Some of these groups were radical and supported violent means for changing the government, but most, such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, worked within the system and are still influential today.

Popular media still refer to that decade as "the Roaring Twenties," offering images of a faster paced city life increasingly controlled by automobiles and violent organized crime. To an extent, this perception is true. There were four automobiles on the road in the U.S. in 1895; in 1920 there were eight and a quarter million; by 1927 that number had doubled. The factories needed to build these machines brought people from farms and other countries to the cities. With liquor outlawed by Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, there were great profits to be made in illegally providing liquor, and the criminals who did this could only protect their profits from each other by violent means. The popular imagination focuses on the flashy, exciting images of the 1920s, but it usually misses the discomfort people felt when they saw the peaceful countryside slipping away. Robert Frost captures this mood in "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Literary Style

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"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is written in iambic tetrameter. "Iambic" means that each metrical foot contains two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. "Tetrameter" means that each line contains four metrical feet. So a poem written in iambic tetrameter would contain a total of eight syllables in each line. This idea will become clearer if we scan a line, or diagram the meter:

Of easy wind and downy flake.

When the line is scanned, it will look like this:

Of eas / y wind / and down / y flake.

Such metrical patterns generally make poetry sound more musical. Occasionally, a line will vary from the established pattern, which often emphasizes the importance of that line.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" also relies on rhyme to achieve some of its music. For the first three stanzas, the rhyme scheme is consistent. Its pattern is aaba bbcb cede. The fourth stanza, however, rhymes every line with d. This means that in the first stanza, lines one, two, and four rhyme with each other, with line three ("here") seeming odd. However, in stanza two, lines one, two, and four rhyme with "here," while the rhyme on line three, "lake," is picked up in stanza three. Such a pattern links the stanzas together and indicates that the ideas contained in the stanzas are strongly related.

Compare and Contrast

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1923: The Soviet Union came into existence, expanding the Communist empire established by the Russian revolution of 1917.

1945: With the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the Soviet Union became one of the world's two super-powers, along with the United States.

1990: The Soviet Union disbanded after member nations demanded independence.

Today: Most former Soviet Union countries belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States: civil wars over property rights of ethnic factions break out frequently.

1923: Approximately 42 percent of the land in the United States was farmland; approximately 30 percent of the population lived on farms, down from 41 percent at the turn of the century.

1940: 46.8 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland; 23.2 percent of the population lived on farms.

1960: 49.5 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland; 8.7 percent of the population lived on farms.

1980: 44.8 percent of U.S. acreage was farmland: 2.7 percent of the population lived on farms.

Today: Machinery and bio-engineering make it possible to grow greater amounts of produce in smaller spaces with fewer employees.

Media Adaptations

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An audio record titled "Robert Frost Reads the Poems of Robert Frost" was released in 1957 by Decca.

A video titled Robert Frost, part of the Poetry America Series, is available through AIMS Media.

Robert Frost, a videocassette from volume 3 of the Voices and Visions Series, is available from Mystic Fire Video.

A 1958 interview with Robert Frost is available on video cassette from Zenger.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Cox, James M., Editor, Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1962.

Cox, James M., "Robert Frost and the Edge of the Clearing," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 1959, pp. 73-88.

Frost, Robert, Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, Library of America, 1995.

Gerber, Philip L., Critical Essays on Robert Frost, G.K. Hall, 1982.

Kemp, John C., Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 273.

Ogilvie, John T., "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter 1959, pp. 64-76.

Potter, James L., Robert Frost Handbook, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Thompson, Lawrance, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph 1915-1938, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

For Further Study Cramer, Jefrey S., Robert Frost Among His Poems, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 1996. Cramer gives a brief but thorough background of almost every poem Frost has written. An indispensable guide.

Johnson, Paul, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1983. Not as fun or interesting to read as Geoffrey Perrett's book listed below, but full of more factual information. Perrett, Geoffrey, Americans in the Twenties, New York: Touchstone Books, 1983. This book is filled with fascinating anecdotes that bring the decade alive. All aspects of life are covered.

Suchard, Alan, et. al., Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. The author paints a portrait of Frost as a bitter and brilliant man, quite the opposite of the impression one gets of him from his poetry.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.