Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening Questions and Answers

Robert Frost

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening questions.

How would you identify tone and use it to find theme and meaning?

Literary critics and analysts agree that "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" is the picture of simplicity, yet, at the same time, an object of great complexity.

"What appears to be 'simple' is shown to be not really simple" (John T. Ogilvie, "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost’s Poetry").

Some call "Stopping by Woods" poetic perfection, with perfect unification of emotion, thought, and words, that embodies Frost's aesthetics (theory) of poetry.

"A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words" (Robert Frost, Robert Frost: The Man and His Work).

Nonetheless, there is some disagreement on the nature of the woods in the poem. Are they malevolent and threatening because of the word "dark"? What sort of allure does their mystery have for the poetic speaker and traveler? Are the woods symbolic of something else altogether?

There is also disagreement on the tone of the poem. This would dismay Frost since he held the belief that the right word in the right place conveyed exactly the right emotion and tone. His belief was that poetry is "words that become deeds." If the tone, emotion, or meaning of the words defy agreement, then there can be no agreement on the deeds the words provoke. Frost would find this provoking because it flies in the face of (contradicts) his efforts as a poet.

The first task in analyzing Frost's poem in order to understand it is to determine the tone of the poem. Tone--which is the emotion or attitude of the poetic speaker toward the subject of the poem--is determined largely by words and sounds. Sounds are the phonetic units that comprise words. An illustration of this to consider is the repeated /t/, /d/, or /p/ sounds, as in put, don't, not, tut, bit, dip. These can produce a biting, rapid, perhaps angry tone. In contrast, repeated /m/, /n/ or /v/ sounds, as in man, noon, moon, velvet, home, can produce a steadier, calmer, more tranquil tone. Thus, both words themselves and their component sounds are the components of poetic tone.

What is the tone of "Stopping by the Woods"? Some words and their sounds that might indicate tone are these:

whose

woods

think / know

house

village

though

see / watch

snow

little horse

queer

stop

farmhouse

between

frozen lake

evening

year

darkest

harness / bells

a shake

ask

sound's [sound is]

sweep

easy wind

downy flake

lovely

deep

dark

promises

miles to go

sleep

One of the first things we notice from this list of words is that many arouse pleasant associations. This is especially true about snow-related words for someone who is a New Englander by rearing or by long-time residency. Frost wrote this poem in 1922 while farming in Vermont and teaching at what is now Middlebury College. He had previously purchased a farm in the hinterlands of New Hampshire thus was a well-seasoned New England farmer. Since the New England mentality toward winter snow and dark woods is an integral part of the poem, let's examine what that is for a moment.

NEW ENGLAND: SNOW AND SNOW-FILLED WOODS

The stereotype--or perhaps it is an archetype--prevalent in fairy tales and fantasy stories is that dark and deep woods are dangerous, scary, and malevolent places. This is accentuated in snowy seasons by images of wolves, freezing wanderers, and blinding blizzards. Yet keep in mind that this image of danger is offset by fairies who live peacefully in friendly woods where animals eat from princesses' hands and peasants live happily and contentedly.

Frost's expression of the New England mentality toward dark, deep, and snow-filled woods has at its roots a place where all are snug in farmhouses or cozy village homes; a place where all travel in security with the safety of a favorite, contented horse pulling reliable sleighs. This mentality views wintery woods as friendly, peaceful places. It is not a mentality that casts--under normal circumstances--woods as dangerous, malevolent places. New Englanders enjoy watching the dark, deep woods that surround them quietly, almost magically, fill with snow, watching almost mesmerized as the snow creeps higher and higher up the tree bark or fence post.

For a New Englander, like Robert Frost was from 1885 onward, winter snow is like a warm comforter descending on the land and on one's soul for a long, peaceful slumber after a year of hard work and toil. Falling snow filling a dark wood at the evening of the day is a quieting sight that lights the eyes with a gentle glow and warms the heart with thoughts of a later flower-strewn spring coming at the end of winter quietude and slumber. The feeling produced is dreaminess, and critic George Montiero, Professor Emeritus of Brown University, uses the word "dreamy" to describe the poetic tone of the poem. He speaks of the poet's "dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations" (George Montiero, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance).

MEANING OF WORDS AND TONE

Returning to our list of tonal words, let's consider the synonymous meanings associated with some of the words. Do these meanings fit with the New England idea of dark and deep woods, filling with snow, or with the stereotypical/ archetypical idea of a dark, deep, and malevolent wood?

whose -- identity, familiarity, friendliness

woods -- lush, peaceful

think / know -- mental associations /certainty

house -- comfort, warmth, desired

village -- community, safety, gathering

see / watch -- look at, witness, participate, attend to

snow -- peaceful blanket of white

little -- diminutive, gentleness

horse -- helper, animal friend

queer -- unusual, out of the ordinary

stop -- come to rest, wait, cease motion

farmhouse -- welcoming and lively place, source of goodness, warmth

between -- something on either hand, routes to both

frozen lake -- wonderland, ice skating

evening -- quietude, rest from glaring light, warm fires

darkest evening of the year -- solstice, turning point, mystery

harness bells -- sounds of leather and bells, joyful season

a shake -- playfulness, mild protest

ask -- friendly relations, comfortable inquiry

only other sound -- quiet, stillness, surrounding silence

sweep of easy wind -- hush of wind whispering gently across tree branches and snow

[and] downy flake -- gentle soft murmur of snow accumulating on snow and on branches and fence posts

lovely -- pleasing, pleasant, appealing

deep -- endless, continuing, hidden mysteries and wonders

dark -- secret, hidden, not brazen

promises -- assurances to oneself or someone else of something to be

miles to go -- journey, life to live, accomplishments to achieve

sleep -- rest, stillness

The tone that emerges from the synonymous meanings of the words is a tone based on community and friendly feelings; happy associations with snow and woods--like harness bells--not fearful associations. The meaning of the words lead us to conclude that the tone of "Stopping by Woods" is a dreamy, comforting, peaceful tone that reflects the New England mentality toward woods filling with a comforting winter blanket of snow that gives rest to the land and the soul, with comforting and safe farmhouse, village, horse, bells, and sleigh close at hand.

SOUNDS AND TONE

Let's examine what the sounds of phonetic intonations within the poem are and determine what, if anything, they reveal about the poetic tone. When Frost taught poetry at Amherst College, a principle he formulated and taught was "the sound of sense." This principle advocated incorporating the sounds of words into the composition of poetry. This principle was derived from his own poetic aesthetic; it was built upon his own use of sounds to structure the emotional and meaningful expression of his poetry (it is a tried and true principle employed by Renaissance poets such as Edmund Spenser as well).

The first thing that stands out is the abundance of the sound of /s/; not a line is without the /s/ and its "sibilant" sound. The /s/ here imitates the sound of snow and the hush of silence: "The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The /s/ forms the underpinning for the tone. The other sounds build upon this and create the full poetic tone. It will be interesting to compare the tone created by phonetics (sounds) to the tone created by word meanings.

After the hushed, soothing tone of /s/, what is most noticeable is the open, or rounded, vowels and diphthongs /o/ /oo/ /ow/ /ou/ /or/ /ar/. These are alternated with the close, or bright, vowel sounds of /e/ /i/. The tone created by these gentle vowel sounds is that of calm and dreaminess.

This dreaminess is given a syncopated counterpoint with the crisp, plosive consonants /t/ /p/ /d/ /k/ /st/. Dreaminess carried too far may become mere boredom. Crisp consonants prevent this from happening. The other consonants that appear, /n/ /w/ /l/ /h/ /m/ /qu/ /z/ /y/ /f/, add reinforcement to the calm, hushed, and soothing tone created by Frost's phonetic choices.

To build sounds into the structure of the poem, and to use structure to confirm the tone, each stanza emphasizes a new sound that was initiated in line 3 of the preceding stanza. This creates both a linked structure and a linked rhyme (linking is called concatonation).

Stanza 2 adds /or/ /ar/ /ear/ /ro/ initiated in stanza 1.3

Stanza 3 adds /ak/ /sk/ initiated in stanza 2.3

Stanza 4 adds /eep/ initiated in stanza 3.3 and /long i/ initiated in 1.1

Tone of the Poem

Frost's implementation of his principle of "the sound of sense" very deliberately creates a specific and readily perceived tone that is calm, dreamy, hushed, and soothing. This tone, built through phonetic sound, corresponds with the dreamy, comforting, and peaceful tone created by the word meanings.

We must conclude that the tone of the poem is dreamy, comforting, soothing, calm, and hushed. This tonal description coincides with the New England mentality of peacefully blanketing snow and completely contrasts with the archetypical idea of malevolent, dark, deep, and snowy woods. This means that the thematic meaning of the poem will coincide with the tone and will not align with dangerousness or fearfulness because tone undergirds thematic meaning; tone does not undermine it. Tone builds theme; it does not contradict theme.

ELEMENTS OF THE POEM NARRATIVE

There are five primary elements in the poem narrative: the man, the little horse, the villager, snowy woods, and miles to go before sleep. One element often overlooked is the little horse. It is often seen as an incidental, as scenic dressing of no great importance. Yet when Frost talked about writing the poem, he spoke of it as a poem "about the snowy evening and the little horse." For Frost, the little horse was an integral part of the man's journey and experience.

LITTLE HORSE

The little horse is the man's safety during the snowfall. He transports the man through the snowfall to a warm haven. Apparently, he and the man pass this spot--or other spots very much like it--on a regular basis. If this were a novelty, the horse might understand stopping to get the bearings of a new and unfamiliar place. He shakes his head, rings his bells, and tosses his harness as if to ask, "Why are we stopping here? This is no place new to be gazing at. Is there some mistake?"

The little horse and man represent two approaches to the same experience. The man wants to dreamily gaze in wonder, while the horse finds nothing in the familiar scene to attract undue attention. There is no sense of irritation, anxiety, or disgust in the little horse's speculated reaction. There is just matter-of-fact questioning about a possible mistake. So, one approach to seeing the scene is to see it and find nothing notable and pass on, which is what the little horse wants to do. The alternate approach is to watch it, to put other thoughts aside for a time and watch the scene. The horse observes the man's response to the scene. Therefore there is a community of observing between the man and the horse that forms a triangle: the man watches the scene; the horse observes the man; the man observes the horse. If the landowner were nearby, the triangle might expand to an encircling community of observing.

MAN

The man thinks of and alludes to a reciprocal watching: if the owner were nearby, he might watch the man watching the snowy woodland scene. No one is nearby, so the man's watching goes unobserved except by the little horse. Yet the mere mention of the villager landowner creates the awareness of a larger community of reciprocity that the man--and the horse--are part of. In this case, the absence of a representative of community reinforces the existence of community: This man is not a "loner" even though he is at the present moment alone. We can deduce from this that loneliness and despair are not themes, although community and unity are themes.

With poetic minimalism, Frost tells us about the man. He is industrious and engaged in some gainful activity. If this were not so, the little horse would not be surprised at the unexpected halt to watch the commonplace New England scene. The man is kind, gentle, and patient. If this were not so, he would speak to and about the bell-shaking little horse in an entirely different way. The man has importance in life and has goals to attain. If this were not so, he would neither have promises to keep nor care that he kept them. He would not have miles--literal or metaphoric miles--to traverse before he could seek his own rest.

VILLAGER

If the landowner were there, he might participate with the man in experiencing the woodsy, snowy scene by watching him watch his field and woods fill with snow. The little horse stands in contrast to what the owner does because the owner is not there within eye-shot: the horse is part of the observing community, while the absent owner is part of the implied extended community.

MILES TO GO AND SLEEP

promises, n.: assurances to oneself or someone else of something to be

If the snow-filled wood metaphorically represents the land sleeping after the seasons of hard labor and toil, then the man has seasons of labor and toil to go before he reaches his winter's rest; he has a long life to live, having promises/ assurances to others to fulfill before his life's work is through. In this case, while he may be weary and longing for the blanket of white peace and comfort for his final rest in death, it is more likely, considering the tone of the poem, that he is affirming the path of life he is on and the promises he has made to himself about what he will attain and the promises he has made to others in his community, like the little horse and the absent landowner-villager, about what he will do or be for them.

THEME: Affirming the path of life he is on and the promises he has made.

FROST'S VIEW OF NEW ENGLAND AS FOUND IN "NEW HAMPSHIRE"

In "New Hampshire" (1922) (New Hampshire, 1923), Frost leads us to believe that he is chronicling a life in New England that "goes so unterribly" rather than chronicling a metaphoric dangerous and dark wood that is fearful, foreboding, or ominous.

How are we to write
The Russian novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?
There is the pinch from which our only outcry
In literature to date is heard to come.
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.
[...]
For all her mountains fall a little short,
Her people not quite short enough for Art,
She's still New Hampshire, a most restful state.

"Stopping by Woods" was written immediately after Frost finished "New Hampshire," a long poem that gives his view of his adopted land and his impressions of the criticisms other had about New Hampshire. As Frost tells it, he had worked all night long on finishing "New Hampshire," and dawn broke just as he finished. Going out into the breaking light, he had the idea for a new poem "about the snowy evening and the little horse." He wrote it quickly, in "a few minutes without strain," as if he had "had a hallucination." After "Stopping by Woods" was published in his 1923 collection, Frost said it was "my best bid for remembrance."

In it, all the different elements come together--rather like the man's circle of community--and confirm each other. When this biographical history of how the poem came to be written is combined with the tone, as determined by word meaning and word sounds, and when these are combined with the nature of the woods, as revealed by word meaning, and when these are combined with the theme that is revealed, affirming the path of life he is on, then the poem comes together as a unified whole--with "the sound of sense"--in which each element builds and confirms the others to develop the poem's meaning and theme.

How would you write a critical analysis of the "woods" theme?

Robert Frost contended that too much effort was given by critics to finding deeply symbolic interpretations of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which is about, in his words, "the snowy evening and the little horse." When he was able to, he personally oversaw the editing of "Stopping by Woods" to ensure that the woods were "lovely, dark and deep" instead of "lovely, dark, and deep." The latter punctuation (lovely, dark, and deep) gives as much emphasis to "dark" as to "lovely," encouraging an association between the woods and symbolic darkness. This is apparently an association Frost tried to discourage. The former punctuation, "lovely, dark and deep" expresses loveliness as the primary quality of the woods, woods that are lovely while being both dark and deep or lovely because both dark and deep.

The loveliness Frost attributes to the woods contrasts with the idea of woods that are a dangerous, unknown, wild, risky place. The loveliness of the woods, and the equanimity with which the man stops before them in a contemplative reverie, suggests knowledge of the woods, familiarity, and tranquility, which oppose the unknown, danger and wildness.

The stereotype and the archetype of woods "dark and deep" derives in large part from fairy and fantasy tales in which the woods indeed are dark, dangerous, unknown, risky and wild. Yet there is also a countering archetype in fairy and fantasy tales of woods dark and deep as sheltering, protecting, friendly places where fairies dwell in safety and princesses feed wild animals from their hands. It becomes necessary, in view of these dichotomous archetypes, to find indicators to the archetype, if an archetype is intended, (1) within the text or (2) in the circumstances of the composition of the text. These same indicators--text and specifics of composition--point the way to identifying the theme of woods and to identifying whether an archetype is employed or defied.

WITHIN THE TEXT

Varying critical theories approach analysis of literature from differing bases. For instance, some critical approaches focus attention on the text alone while others include attention to the author's biographical information and still others include social and cultural background.

When analyzing texts, while varying critical theories may be applied and different critical approaches taken, it continues to be true that each individual work may present a unique symbol or representation that differs from the archetype or stereotype associated with a symbolic object, for example, a work may present a unique thematic symbol associated with woods dark and deep. With this in mind, it is fair to say that the woods Frost presents may defy or contradict the archetype and stereotype of woods dark and deep that is prevalent in literature in the same way that some fairy and fantasy tales contradict the archetype of woods as dangerous, wild places.

When "Stopping by Woods" is analyzed from the text alone, the poetic tone of the poem--as derived from word choice and meaning and from the component phonetic sounds of words--contradicts the idea of dangerous, wild, risky woods and confirms the idea of friendly lovely woods that are dark and deep in their loveliness. The tone, as derived from a close analysis of the text, is dreamy, calm, tranquil, unfearful. [For a full analysis of tone in "Stopping by Woods," see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Summary: "Identifying Tone and Defining Woods to Find Theme and Meaning."]

When analysis of "Stopping by Woods" incorporates biographical information about Frost, a surprising agreement between textual tone and biography emerges. Specifically, what is known about Frost's opinion of central New England (Vermont and New Hampshire) and what is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of "Stopping by Woods" confirms the idea of the woods as a friendly, tranquil place, which contradicts the idea of the woods as a risky, unknown, wild, dangerous place.

RELEVANT FROST BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Frost's Opinions in "New Hampshire"

Two aspects of the circumstances surrounding Robert Frost's composition of "Stopping by Woods" are especially important for understanding the woods theme. Remember that each unique poem might assign a unique symbolism or representation to an element so that it differs from traditional archetypes and/or stereotypes. The first biographical aspect of important relevance is the opinion of central New England Frost had just finished expressing in the poem "New Hampshire." The second aspect of important relevance is the time and place of inspiration for and the ease of execution of "Stopping by Woods."

Published in the 1923 collection New Hampshire, which won Frost his first Pulitzer Prize, "New Hampshire" is a lengthy poem that expresses Frost's opinion of central New England in the trope of having something to buy or sell: "Not even New Hampshire farms are much for sale." This odd propinquity of having nothing to sell set aside, he says that New Hampshire and Vermont are the best two states in the Union.

[New Hampshire's] one of the two best states in the Union.
Vermont's the other. And the two have been
Yoke-fellows in the sap-yoke from of old
In many Marches.
[...]
Anything I can say about New Hampshire
Will serve almost as well about Vermont,
Excepting that they differ in their mountains.
The Vermont mountains stretch extended straight;
New Hampshire mountains curl up in a coil.

For Frost, speaking about New Hampshire is just about the same as speaking about Vermont ("Anything I can say about New Hampshire / Will serve almost as well about Vermont"). Frost had been living and farming in New Hampshire before moving in 1920 to Vermont where he was living when he wrote "New Hampshire" and "Stopping by Woods" in 1922. A useful idea inferred from "New Hampshire" is that the mountains are not wild: "The more the sensibilitist I am / The more I seem to want my mountains wild." If they were wild, he would not need to want them changed to be wild. Frost says that, on the contrary, the mountains are restful: "For all her mountains fall a little short, / She's still New Hampshire, a most restful state."

Frost is so subtle in his poetic expressions that many things can be inferred beyond what is openly stated in his seemingly straightforward, conversational verse. In his defense of "little men" who, Emerson said, taunt "the lofty land" of New Hampshire, Frost's discourse about New Hampshire mountains offers a case in point about his subtlety that has a direct relationship to the woods theme. Frost says he would elevate the mountains of New Hampshire:

If I must choose which I would elevate
The people or the already lofty mountains,
I'd elevate the already lofty mountains.

When forced to choose, if he wants to "elevate" New Hampshire's mountains, then he wants to change them. If he wants his "mountains wild," then they are not wild now. New Hampshire mountains are covered with woods. If the mountains are not wild, the woods are not "wild" either. Another significant opinion that Frost expresses is that the people of New Hampshire, and by inference, Vermont, have no "cause for misery" because "life goes so unterribly."

I don't know what to say about the people.
For Art's sake one could almost wish them worse
Rather than better. How are we to write
The Russian novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?
[...]
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.
[...]
On nothing worse than too much luck and comfort.
[...]
The only fault I find with old New Hampshire
Is that her mountains aren't quite high enough.
[...]
How high I'd thrust the peaks in summer snow
To tap the upper sky and draw a flow
Of frosty night air on the vale below
Down from the stars to freeze the dew as starry.
The more the sensibilitist I am
The more I seem to want my mountains wild;
[...]
For all her mountains fall a little short,
Her people not quite short enough for Art,
She's still New Hampshire, a most restful state.

Frost's Composition of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

One night, Frost worked the whole night finishing "New Hampshire" for publication. He was surprised by the dawn when he was finally finished, ending the poem with the ironic words, "[It's] restful just to think about New Hampshire. / At present I am living in Vermont." Going outside to enjoy the sunrise, and in a mood that matched the poetic tone and the final words he had written, Frost was struck by an idea for a new poem about, in his words, "the snowy evening and the little horse," an idea that came to him in a flash, like "a hallucination." He wrote it directly, without waiting, in very "few minutes without strain."

These unique circumstances--(1) "Stopping by Woods" being preceded by the completion of a poem paying tribute to the unterribleness of New Hampshire and Vermont ("serve almost as well about Vermont") and (2) the idea and composition of the poem coming to him during a sunrise calm like "a hallucination" and "without strain"--lend incredulity (i.e., disbelief) to the notion that Frost had in mind dangerous, wild, unknown woods. We've seen that in "New Hampshire" Frost says that he wants his mountains (and their woods) wild, strongly suggesting that the mountains and woods of central New England are not wild and that he is not contemplating wild woods beneath the surprising and calm sunrise that greeted his exist from his reverie immortalized in "New Hampshire":

The only fault I find with old New Hampshire
Is that her mountains aren't quite high enough. ...
The more the sensibilitist I am
The more I seem to want my mountains wild;

IMPLICATIONS OF BIOGRAPHICAL ACCORD WITH POETIC TONE

Biographical information relevant to the creation of "Stopping by Woods" makes a strong case against these woods being wild, risky, unknown places of dark dangers. The idea of central New England's woods as painted in "New Hampshire," a poem completed immediately prior to Frost's composition of "Stopping by Woods," accords perfectly with the dreamy, calm, tranquil, friendly woods painted by the tone of the poem as conveyed through words and phonetic sounds. The conclusion that looms large from the accord between these two analyses is that the theme of woods in this poem is not one of dark dangers and risks in life; it is not one that posits life--at the few moments captured in the poem--as a threatening, troublesome, terrible place of risk and danger. This conclusion is confirmed by the picture Frost paints of central New England woods in "Birches." Textual analysis of "Stopping by Woods" that incorporates biographical matter makes clear what the woods theme most logically does not represent. What, then, is represented by the woods theme?

WHAT DOES THE WOODS THEME REPRESENT?

To get a good idea of what is represented by the wood theme, let's consider the characters in the narrative. There are three characters: the little horse (very important to Frost since he describes the poem as being about the "snowy evening and the little horse"); the man, who is also the poetic speaker; and the owner of the woods.

Each of these characters is an observer and an individual participant. The little horse observes the man stopping. It is also an individual participant because it doesn't share the man's interest in a wood filling with snow; it has its own opinion. It seems to perceive the wood filling with snow as being exactly like all the woods filling with snow it has ever seen and discerns no reason to give special attention.

The man is an observer of the snowy woods on the snowy evening. He is an individual participant because he interacts with the little horse; he psychologically interacts with the absent landowner; he contemplates the effect of the woods filling with snow.

The owner of the woods is an observer in absentia. Were he there, it is probably true that he would observe, not the woods, but the man watching the woods fill with snow. By saying that the owner "will not see," the man strongly implies that were he there, he would see. The owner is an individual participant in absentia because his conjectured interest stands in contrast to the little horse's lack of interest. The three form a community. This community is an implied extension to the population surrounding the owner living in the village.

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 
[...]

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake.

The three elements we've talked about--tone, biographical information, and characters representing community--form the foundation for understanding the woods theme.

Firstly, the woods represent the gathering of community interests that are as friendly, lovely, yet as dark and deep as the woods themselves. Woods are dark and deep while being lovely in the same way that members of a community are a bit mysterious and definitely complex, or "dark and deep," though exceedingly lovely. Just as it is lovely to contemplate the changing shades of the woods in its changing seasons, so is it lovely to contemplate the changing shades of community in its changing progressions.

Secondly, the woods represents promises made to the community, which includes oneself. While it is pleasant to contemplate in a reverie the physical beauties of the woods and the represented beauties of a community, there are promises made to the community that cannot be neglected, promises made to oneself that cannot be neglected. Before us, in these three characters, we see four examples of promises made:

(1) The man has made promises to the little horse to care for it, feed it, shelter it and not keep it out in the cold an unreasonable time.

(2) The horse in turn promises by its nature to be the man's companion and to transport the man safely to the appointed destinations. This is why it shakes its harness and bells; it knows there are places to go and promises to keep and so seeks to remind the man that they must hasten on their way.

(3) The man has made an implicit promise to the owner of the woods to respect his ownership even while admiring what is owned; he has made a promise to honor their community bonds.

(4) The owner has made a promise in absentia to trust the man and appreciate his admiration of his woods: were he there, he would not chase the man off but would join in observing in the spirit of community sharing.

This analysis of the woods theme as representing community and promises made to the community is confirmed in the poem "New Hampshire." One particular point Frost makes, which is one of the surprises of the poem, is that crossing the "boundary" from Massachusetts to New Hampshire confronted Frost with unexpected depth in friendships.

Where I was living then, New Hampshire offered
The nearest boundary to escape across.
I hadn't an illusion in my hand-bag
About the people being better there
Than those I left behind. I thought they weren't.
I thought they couldn't be. And yet they were.
I'd sure had no such friends in Massachusetts
As Hall of Windham, Gay of Atkinson,
Bartlett of Raymond (now of Colorado),
Harris of Derry, and Lynch of Bethlehem.

As the man and the little horse stop in front of the woods filling up with snow, the man contemplates community and the horse reminds him of his promises, of his places to go. After a friendly, dreamy reverie about the beauties of woods and communities, the man bestirs himself to remember the miles he has to go in life to fulfill the promises made--including the promises made to himself to achieve and attain--to those who depend upon him in one way or another. Biographical information and the circumstances coming immediately before the penning of "Stopping by Woods" suggest Frost may have been thinking of those whose friendship and community was of a deeper quality than friends he had formerly known: "I'd sure had no such friends in Massachusetts...."

How would you write a critical analysis of the theme of "evening."

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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.

In order to understand the evening theme in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," we need to understand the time when Frost is setting the poem and what the symbolic significance of the time is. There are two parts relevant to the time when the poem is set: (1) evening and (2) winter solstice ("darkest evening of the year").

EVENING

Evening as Setting

When trying to understand the evening theme, two points are critical to address when analyzing the evening setting. First, Frost says "evening" twice in the poem. He says it once in the title and once again at the end of the second stanza, as seen in the above quotation. Second, a very important step in understanding the evening theme is understanding the definition of "evening and how "evening" differentiates from "night."

Definition of Evening in Setting

Defining "evening" can be a little difficult because it is one of the modern English words that has undergone a subtle change in definition. The original English definition for "evening" was "'grow towards night,'" as evening extended from late afternoon to dark. Some dictionaries still define evening as "late afternoon until nightfall." Most commonly, though, the contemporary definition of evening is "the latter part of the day and early part of the night" (extending "evening" into dark hours). This is the one that is most applicable to the poem, since it encompasses a period during which activity still occurs before bedtime in a middle, dark part of night.

The time of the setting, then, is anytime between sunset and the man's bedtime. Since he still has much to do, "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep," we might reasonably conclude that the evening is young still: He has much time ahead of him before bedtime.

Evening Setting Stated Twice

Since Frost mentions evening twice, the first time being most prominently in the title, he is directing attention away from "night," even though the "evening" is dark, indeed "darkest." Based on his (a) idea for the poem, the (b) tone of the poem and the (c) thematic meaning of the woods (which is not the archetypical "dark," wild, dangerous woods theme), we can infer the reason Frost stresses "evening."

We know from his own words that he wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as a narrative about "the snowy evening and the little horse" immediately after successfully completing the long poem "New Hampshire" pointing out New Hampshire's virtues. We know the poem came to him like "a hallucination" while enjoying the sunrise after working all night on "New Hampshire." We know the tone of the poem--based on vocabulary and phonetics [see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Summary: "Identifying Tone and Defining Woods to Find Theme and Meaning."]--is friendly, calm, tranquil. We know from critical analysis of the woods theme [see "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Themes: "Critical Analysis of Woods Theme."] that the woods are a civilized, friendly, mesmerizing place conducive to pleasant reverie about community and willing promises within communities.

From these elements, we can infer that the emphasis on "evening," despite its darkness, functions to turn our attention away from the stereotypes and archetypes of "night" and "dark." Frost turns our attention toward an understanding of evening that will coincide with:

  • the epiphany of his idea,
  • the tone he constructed,
  • and the meaning of the woods theme.

What Is Evening Representing?

Evening is the restful time between the rigors of day and the refreshing sleep of night when we can devote our attention to community and to promises to our community. During the laborious hours of day, our attentions are focused on labor, performance, earning our keep. During the hours of evening, even dark hours of evening, our attention is turned toward home, family, friends, community obligations of various sorts (e.g., choirs to sing in, committee meetings to attend, theater performances to enjoy). "Evening" tells us, twice, that Frost isn't presenting a dark aspect but a unifying, comforting aspect of being and living.

WINTER SOLSTICE

The "darkest evening of the year" is winter solstice, a solar-planetary event when Earth is furthest away from the Sun because of the sideways tilt of Earth's axis in its rotation. The "darkest evening of the year" alludes to the fact that at winter solstice, darkness comes earlier than on any other day. In norther climes, particularly the mountainous regions of New England, this can mean, incredibly, that darkness falls in some places as early as 3 p.m., which fits our definition of "evening." Early darkness on the solstice constitutes the darkest evening of the year.

Though Frost's poem is set on the darkest evening, there are two things that stand out and help to illuminate the evening theme.

  • One is that winter solstice darkness heralds the coming of longer days and shorter nights. The lengthening of days is immediate and almost always noticeable by almost all.
  • The second point is that on this particular night, it is snowing.

A particular phenomenon of snowfall in darkness is that the diffuse reflectivity of snow--its albedo--causes snowfall and freshly snowy surfaces to add a glow to the surrounding night. This effect can be quite surprising to those who have never seen it. It seems the dark of night has suddenly become bright as day. Frost makes a point of there being snowfall. First, he tells right in the title that it is a snowy evening, thus a reflective, glowingly bright evening. Then, the only activity he gives the man (aside from thinking about others) is to watch the woods "fill up with snow."

The impact of the falling snow (blizzards being harder snowfall in fierce winds, the albedo is modified) on the scene is to make the "darkest night of the year" bright and to make the woods "lovely, dark and deep" glow with mystery and wonder. The snowy evening setting removes the archetype or stereotype of "dark" from any association with the poem while presenting the paradoxes that (1) it is the winter solstice thus the darkest evening and that (2) the woods are "dark and deep." But, tonight, as the man and little horse stop before the woods filling "up with snow," the glow of light--and all that the light archetype symbolizes--dispels the darkness leaving only loveliness: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."

EVENING THEME

Based upon the above analysis, it is possible to identify the meaning of the evening theme. First of all, we know it is not insignificant that the setting is evening, nor is it insignificant that the evening is snowy. These two aspects of the setting separate the poem from the symbolism of night and darkness, even though dark has mention in the poem. Secondly, we know the evening is aglow in the reflective light of the falling and accumulating snow. This glow further separates the meaning of the poem from the symbols of dark and night. We can draw the conclusion that, rather than relating to fear, melancholy, pessimism (even death, as some suggest), this poem is about loveliness, optimism, peaceful contemplation and promises made to self and others: Perhaps the man would like to linger longer in transfixed reverie but, as both he and the little horse know, there are places to go and things to do.

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 evening theme ties the surrounding snowy glow together with the solstice's and woods' darkness to create a new light that equates with optimism and the opportunity to be and to do and to keep promises. This theme is presented as an early end of the day's toil--early because of the snow and the earlier darkness; an early return to the bosom of family and friends; a long evening of food, pleasure, revitalization and rest. These pleasures are the man's compensation for having to cut short his mesmerized contemplation of the glowing loveliness before him. These are also a solstice's long, pleasing preparation for the miles to go and promises to keep as the days lengthen and become warmer and sunnier.

How would you write a critical analysis of the "little horse" theme?

An exploration of the little horse theme must begin with considering why Robert Frost described the poem as being "about the snowy evening and the little horse." One would think the idea for the poem might be described as "about the snowy evening and the man" or "about the snowy woods and the man." The only conclusion is that, for Frost, the little horse of the poem played a significant thematic role and that its interaction with the snowy evening is perhaps as significant as the man's interaction with the "woods" as they "fill up with snow." To start an exploration of the little horse theme, we might ask what role the little horse plays in the narrative of the poem.

THE ROLE OF THE LITTLE HORSE IN THE NARRATIVE

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 role of the little horse occupies two out of four stanzas. The little horse fills the heart of the poem in stanzas two and three. The stanza preceding the introduction of the little horse focuses on the suggested but ill-defined relationship between the man and the owner of the woods. Mention of the owner's house in the village introduces implied relationships on a wider scale.

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.

Stanza four, following the action of the little horse, focuses, for the first time, on the man and introduces his promises, journey and approaching repose in sleep. [There is nothing in the tone, symbolism, or themes that suggest Frost intends "sleep" to equate to death; all point to "sleep" being the refreshing repose at the end of a day of labor and kept promises.]

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 stanza subjects introduce the theme of respected friendship through the owner of the woods in stanza one; the theme of community through the anthropomorphized little horse in stanzas two and three; and the theme of personal thoughts, obligations and actions (and their implied rewards) through the man in stanza four.

Narrative of the Poem

The narrative of the poem progresses this way. Beginning with only a vaguely suggested backstory, the man is journeying homeward on a snowy evening, on the winter solstice, when he is entranced by woods filling with woods. He and his little horse stop. He watches in mesmerized wonder, as one might easily do on a snowy evening, as the woods fill with snow. He muses to himself that he knows the owner of the lovely woods and envisions the owner watching him if he were nearby rather than living in the village. The man acknowledges that the owner will not watch him stopping before the woods because his house is not a nearby farmhouse but a house in the circle of warmth and sociability of the village. It is important to note that there is no fierce storm; no winds roar, no slanting snow pelts, no blinding sheets of snow obscure vision. It is only a snowfall on a snowy evening; not at night, but in the evening.

The little horse, having been directed to stop en route between "the woods" and "frozen lake" without a "farmhouse near," shakes his "harness bells," which sends his mane a-flying too. The man, in an implied warmth of feeling for his trusted little horse, thinks that he understands the horse's shaking head, mane, harness and bells. He interprets the little horse's action to be the result of puzzlement about their stopping by a woods instead of by a farmhouse; the little horse realizes the absence of the structures of community and fellowship. The man interprets the shaking harness bells as a question about a mistake having been made. This dramatizes the unstated promise made by the little horse to the man to get him where he needs to go in safety and in good time. A stop by woods filling with snow is a surprising diversion from their regular fulfillment of exchanged promises: The little horse promises to get the man safely where he needs to go, and the man promises to care for and protect the little horse.

Analyzing the Important Features of the Narrative

While it was not important to Frost's narrative to explain much about the man, it was important to explain in stanzas two and three rather a lot about the little horse, even if the explanation comes through the man's interpretations of its behavior. It was also important to Frost to explain at the end of stanza three quite a lot about the snowy evening. It should be noted that it is not a storm; it is simply snowing. The snow is accompanied by an "easy wind" that sweeps mildly over little horse, snow, woods, and man. The sound of the snow and wind together is "the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The little horse and snowy evening are brought together when the little horse breaks the quietude of "easy wind and downy flake" by the shake of his head and "harness bells."

Stanza four focuses upon the man, revealing his thoughts, obligations, journey, and day's goal. Stanza one tells his thoughts about the ownership of the woods. Stanzas two and three tell his thoughts about the little horse's actions. Then stanza four tells his personal thoughts about what he is gazing upon. His thoughts are that the woods he gazes upon are lovely, with the dual attributes of being both dark and deep.

In truth, the snowy evening and the little horse receive most of the poetic attention. The snowy evening and the little horse together point to the man's personal thoughts in stanza four. All elements are framed by stanza one in the implied community surrounding the man and little horse. The narrative points to the expression of Frost's primary theme about the man's role/ position in his community, a community that extends to:

  • the absent owner,
  • the unnamed people of the village,
  • the diligent little horse
  • all those to whom promises are made: "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep"

Characteristics of the Little Horse

  • It communicates with the man, while the man anthropomorphizes its actions into thoughts.
  • It redirects the man's thoughts to their uncompleted journey.
  • Its interpreted thoughts remind the man that they have matters at hand to attend to that don't include mistaken stops at commonplace snowy woods.
  • It makes a cheerful, friendly noise in the midst of the hush of the snowfall.

What the Little Horse Accomplishes in "Stopping by Woods"

What does Frost accomplish with the characteristics of the little horse?

  • Frost separates the contemplative nature of the man from the practical nature of the horse.
  • The little horse reminds the man of the cheerful nature of practical life when he would rather get psychologically absorbed in the hush of reverie, like the hush of the wind and snowflakes.
  • It reminds the man of the friendliness of relationships, which are contrasted to the impersonal quality of snowy woods.
  • The little horse epitomizes the theme of community. This is the greatest importance of the little horse to Frost's idea and to "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

LITTLE HORSE THEME

The little horse represents Frost's understanding and vision of community. This analysis is confirmed in "New Hampshire," the poem Frost completed immediately before writing "Stopping by Woods." In "New Hampshire" Frost describes of New Hampshire, the state where he had owned two farms, although he was living on his farm in Vermont when he wrote "New Hampshire" and "Stopping by Woods": "Anything I can say about New Hampshire / Will serve almost as well about Vermont,...." Of the New Hampshire community, he writes:

I hadn't an illusion in my hand-bag
About the people being better there
Than those I left behind. I thought they weren't.
I thought they couldn't be. And yet they were.
I'd sure had no such friends in Massachusetts
As Hall of Windham, Gay of Atkinson,
Bartlett of Raymond (now of Colorado),
Harris of Derry, and Lynch of Bethlehem ("New Hampshire," Frost).

In "Stopping by Woods," Frost extends the idea of community he was speaking of in "New Hampshire" to include the little horse upon which the man depends for safe transportation through rural elements. The exchanges between man and horse that Frost constructs--those being the man's interpretation of the little horse's thoughts, the horse's action, the man's understanding of that action--create a connectedness between man and horse. Theirs is a community in the same sense that the absent woods owner and the implied village inhabitants are a community connected with the man.

Why does Frost symbolize community with the little horse? "Little" is a a term of affection and endearment using the diminutive. "Little" associates the man's feelings for the horse with the theme of caring and safety, with not traveling miles and miles alone on snowy evenings, be they real or metaphorical. The diminutive "little" renders the horse charming and personable. Compare "little horse" to "sturdy horse" or "stallion horse" or "work horse." Each has a connotation that exerts an influence on how interaction with the man will be understood. For instance, a "sturdy" horse shaking its harness and bells might be understood as exerting dominance, "We go now." In contrast, a "little horse" is understood as friendly to the man and as making a serviceable comment with its shaking "harness bells."

Frost seems to have chosen the "little horse" to symbolize community, as well as the absent owner of the woods, in order to present the "miles to go" and "promises to keep" in a friendly light; to present them as being lovingly traveled, made, and kept, not coerced or begrudged; to present them as winsome in the same way the little horse is winsome and a pleasure. It is difficult to think of a representative individual who might facilitate that symbolism as well and thoroughly as the little horse does. The owner, absent from the scene and away in the village, expands the symbol of community without adding dominance, superiority, or other shades of meaning that might change the promises from voluntary, loving, winsome, and pleasurable to enforced or manipulated.

The theme of the little horse is that of community, and Frost defines community--through the little horse and the absent owner and villagers--as those with whom space is shared in those "miles to go" and those with whom promises, implied or explicit, are exchanged and those for whom warmth of feeling is present, as between man and little horse. In the endearing diminutive "little horse," there is also the suggestion that the man has a responsibility to make and keep promises to those who are, in some way or another, less able or more reliant upon the shared efforts of others: The little horse may take the man safely through the snowy woods, but the little horse relies upon the man to prepare and provide its oats. They share a community built upon promises made and kept.

How would you describe the speaker?

Like the speaker in a dramatic monologue, the narrator in Frost’s poem unintentionally reveals much about himself. He does not identify himself or talk about his life, nor does he explain specifically why he is traveling through the snow on the “darkest evening of the year.” Nevertheless, through his voice, his actions, and his reactions to his surroundings, his character is developed clearly. As the poem progresses through the four brief stanzas, it also becomes clear that the narrator is a man to admire.

A telling detail about the character of the narrator is introduced immediately by his actions in the first stanza. He stops to “watch the woods fill up with snow.” His decision to stop suggests several personal traits. He is aware of his surroundings and sensitive to the rhythms of nature; he finds beauty in the natural world and is attuned to it. The image of snow falling in the woods suggests a silence and serenity that speaks to the spirit rather than the intellect, revealing that the narrator is not self-absorbed with the workings of his own mind. Instead, he is open to the beauty of the moment and takes time to acknowledge and appreciate it. Besides revealing the kind of man the narrator is, the stanza quickly establishes what he is not. He is not a man driven by ambition and the relentless need to hurry through life in pursuit of worldly success. By stopping to experience the beauty of snow falling in the woods, the narrator shows that he values nature and feels comfortable in a quiet, isolated landscape apart from society.

The narrator’s character is developed further in stanzas two and three as he speaks of his horse. His reference to “my little horse” is affectionate, and from his subsequent personification of the “little horse,” it’s easy to infer that he thinks of the horse as his companion, not as a subjugated animal in harness. The narrator and his “little horse” understand each other’s behavior, suggesting they have travelled together many times. Consequently, the narrator knows what his horse must be thinking when they stop for no apparent reason “between the woods and frozen lake.” The bond between the narrator and his horse underscores the narrator’s sensitivity and perception; the affection he feels for his “little horse” reveals a gentle and loving spirit.

As the poem concludes, the first line of the fourth stanza serves to reprise much of what the narrator has revealed about himself in the previous stanzas. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” he observes, indicating once again that he is sensitive to the beauty of the natural world and finds wonder in it. The reader can almost hear him sigh as he describes the scene before him. In the final three lines of the stanza, additional traits in his character now become evident. He has “promises to keep” and will travel far through the dark, snowy night, without rest, in order to honor them. A promise is a vow, indicative of commitment; to keep a promise implies dedication and a sense of personal responsibility. “[I have] miles to go before I sleep,” the narrator says, reluctantly turning away from the peaceful scene that invites him to linger. A good man through and through, he can delay no longer in keeping his word.