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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Discussion Topic

The meaning and symbolism of "promises" in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Summary:

In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "promises" symbolize the speaker's responsibilities and commitments. They represent the obligations that pull him away from the tranquil and alluring woods, reminding him of the journey he must continue and the duties he must fulfill before he can rest.

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What promises does the poet mention in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

The poet is probably on a mundane, routine errand and only has simple promises to keep. It appears that he lives on a farm and has driven into some little village in a horse-drawn sleigh to shop for ordinary supplies. Since it is nearly Christmas, he probably picked up some gifts for his wife and children, and the gifts for his children would be things he had promised to get them. When he got married he made the usual promises to love and to cherish, and he still intends to keep those promises, or obligations, to his wife.

Presumably he has been to the village where he does his usual shopping and is now on his way back home. If he had been on his way towards the village, he would not have stopped to look at the woods. He would not have stopped because he had too many things on his mind. But now he has accomplished his errand and his mind is free.

His little horse would not have shaken his harness to ring the harness-bells if they were on their way out, but would have shaken the bells if they were on their way home, where the horse is looking forward to being unhitched and allowed to rest in a warm barn with plenty to eat. In saying that he has promises to keep, the poet is saying, in effect, that he has responsibilities to other people and cannot indulge himself by remaining longer to look at the beautiful woods filling up with snow.

Robert Frost made his poetry dramatic. He has been quoted as saying:

Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or nothing.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" can be read as just a pretty winter snowscape, like on a Christmas card. But it is dramatic because the reader senses that there is more going on in the poet's mind than he tells us. There is something suspicious about the poet stopping. Why does he say:

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.
Why should he care if anybody sees him? Why is he especially concerned about being seen by the owner of the woods? What is he planning to do? Many people have read a "death wish" into this poem. They think the poet is contemplating walking out into those dark, deep woods and lying down to freeze to death. His last repeated lines, "And miles to go before I sleep," can be interpreted as suggesting that he is travel-weary and weary of life but has many miles yet to go and many commitments to fulfill before he can enjoy the luxury of death. 
  
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What do the "promises" symbolize in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

To understand what the speaker's "promises" symbolize in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," it is important to understand what the poem is about. The speaker has chosen to stop for a moment in the woods to appreciate their beauty as the snow falls. However, this is unusual for the speaker. We can discern from the poem that he is usually a prudent man. His horse is unaccustomed to stopping for no discernible reason, and thus the horse seems to think the stop is a mistake:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near

The two final lines also suggest that the speaker of the poem rarely slows down. While "miles to go before I sleep" may be taken literally, it may also be metaphorical. In poetry, it is common for one's life to be figured as a journey. In this case, the "miles" would represent milestones, dilemmas, and accomplishments for the speaker—all of those being components that one might experience during the journey of life. "Promises," then, would be the obligations and goals that the speaker has set out to accomplish on this journey. Thus, the prudent speaker, though he would like to appreciate the beauty of the woods, feels that he must keep those promises and cover those miles.

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What does the speaker mean by "promises" in the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

At the end of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the speaker says that he has "promises" to keep. In this context, promises are his responsibilities and duties. They are what compel him to move onward in his journey while his heart yearns to stay and keep on watching the snow silently fall against a black sky.

The poem is about the conflict between enjoying the ephemeral pleasure and beauty of an especially lovely natural moment and the pressure of the responsibilities which drive one relentlessly forward because of the prior commitments one has made.

Although the poem is short, the speaker's observations suggest that it is unusual for him to stop as he has on this particular evening, the shortest day of the year, to put pleasure ahead of duty. His horse, for example, is confused and shakes his harness bells, as if to remark on how unusual this situation is. According to the speaker, the horse must think there is "some mistake."

The speaker, however, is so moved by the silent scene around him that he is willing to let his duties wait so that for a rare moment he can dwell in the present, not driven by what must be done to fulfill future obligations.

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