Frost’s New England: Robert Frost (1874–1962) is often known as a quintessential poet of New England life. Though he was born and raised in San Francisco and spent several formative years in England, his poetic evocations of New Hampshire and Vermont have cemented his reputation as a Yankee poet. The reputation is understandable, for Frost imbued his writing with the textures of New England. His favored settings are seasonal woodlands and country farms, his favored characters the rural people who inhabit them. Frost even drew much of his diction and rhythm from the common speech of New Englanders.
- The rustic fabric of Frost’s poetry has led many critics to consider Frost a folksy purveyor of homespun wisdom. These critics tend to take the statements and observations in his poems at face value, finding in them direct accounts of rural life and the natural world. In the decades since Frost’s death, however, the broad critical view of the poet has shifted. The speakers in Frost’s poems are more commonly viewed as conflicted souls, whose plainspoken surfaces mask a skeptical or tormented mind at work.
The Threshold of Modernism: Like fellow poets Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) and William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), Frost straddled the worlds of 19th-century tradition and 20th-century innovation. Frost’s approach to poetic style tended towards the conventional. He wrote within circumscribed forms, meters, and rhyme schemes. He viewed the drive toward stylistic innovation as a distraction from the true concerns of poetry. So, too, were Frost’s settings and characters often conventional. Like the poets of the 19th century, Frost never strayed far from descriptions of country life and natural scenery.
- In crucial ways, Frost was also a modern poet, abreast his American contemporaries T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Frost’s layered ambiguity, colloquial language, and subtle investigations into spiritual angst and personal darkness represent hallmarks of the modernists.
Publication History: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” first appeared in Frost’s 1923 collection, New Hampshire. It was his fourth volume and featured Frost in his fully mature style. The critical reception was laudatory, and New Hampshire was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the first of three Frost would collect in his career.
- At this stage of Frost’s life, he was stepping into his role as an established poet and influential teacher. He had returned to the United States from England in 1915 and settled with his family on a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, where he penned “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” His fame and acclaim grew steadily with each published volume. In the ensuing years and decades, Frost regularly taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. As a teacher, he refined his theories of poetry, which became influential among American poets. Most lasting are his ideas about “sentence sounds,” poetic phrases whose sonic shape reflect that of common speech, allowing them to affect readers and audiences at a subconscious, intuitive level.
Structure of the Text
The Ballad, the Rubaiyat, and the Chain Rhyme: Frost’s poem represents a variation on the classic ballad form. Each stanza is a quatrain of iambic tetrameter, a songlike structure that lends the poem the inescapable pull of a journeying story. The rhyme scheme, which is AABA, varies from the standard ABAB. Frost’s variation is borrowed from the classic Persian Rubaiyat , a poetic form constructed of AABA quatrains, each of which is self-contained but thematically connected to the others. Finally, Frost makes use of the chain rhyme, a poetic structure in which the second end rhyme in each...
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stanza becomes the initial end rhyme of the following stanza, a trend that continues to the end of the poem or canto. The most famous use of chain rhyme is in Dante’sDivine Comedy.
The Dramatic Monologue: Frost’s poem represents a subtle example of the dramatic monologue, a poem in which the speaker describes the events and environments around him in a way that inadvertently reveals his own personality. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker never explicitly states his central conflict. Rather, his descriptions of the scene reveal his inner state. In one direction, he sees the “woods . . . lovely, dark and deep”; in another, he sees his horse, who “gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.” The mounting sense that the speaker feels pulled in both directions arises through these external clues.