A Discussion of Structure, Style, and Sound: Robert Frost attended carefully to the form and sound of his poetry, and so a discussion of the formal surfaces of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” will reward readers. Direct your students’ attention to Frost’s formal choices in the poem. Note the use of iambic tetrameter and its songlike rhythms. Note the AABA rhyme scheme, which chains from each stanza to the next, culminating in the DDDD rhymes of the final stanza. Note Frost’s frequent use of alliteration, consonance, and assonance throughout the poem, often imbuing individual stanzas with a sonic signature.
- For discussion: What accounts for Frost’s choices of meter and rhyme scheme? Keeping in mind the tone, narrative, and themes of the poem, what is the effect of the iambic tetrameter? What is the effect of the chain rhyme?
- For discussion: What are some other notable works that employ chain rhyme? How might Frost’s poem stand in conversation with those works?
- For discussion: Frost suffuses the poem with subtle internal rhyme, including assonance, consonance, and alliteration. How do these techniques contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem?
- For discussion: How would you characterize Frost’s diction in the poem? Are the words simple or complex, common or poetic? How does the diction shape and inform the poem?
The Conflict Between “Stopping” and “Promises to Keep”: The central tension in the poem’s narrative is between the speaker’s desire to stop and “watch [the] woods fill up with snow” and the onward pull of “promises to keep.” The deviation of the speaker’s actions is apparent in the first two lines, when he speculates about “whose woods these are” and feels content to linger by them, knowing the owner “will not see me stopping here.” The sense of deviation is underscored by the speaker’s horse, who “gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.” The speaker never clarifies why the woods stand as an object of fascination for him, nor does he clarify the nature of his “promises to keep.” What readers can surmise is that the speaker experiences an inescapable tug in both directions, to stop and study the woods, “lovely, dark and deep” as they are, and to carry on towards his destination. Whether he stays or continues on his way is another mystery.
- For discussion: How does Frost use diction and literary devices to evoke the speaker’s conflict? Which examples are particularly evocative?
- For discussion: Why are the woods alluring to the speaker? Why does he feel that they are forbidden to him?
- For discussion: When the speaker repeats the phrase “And miles to go before I sleep,” is his tone one of exhaustion, bespeaking his desire to remain, or of resolve, bespeaking his desire to moving onward? Use specific examples from the poem to support your views.
The Poem as Meditation on Death: Frost’s poem is often read as a meditation on death. Many critics and readers view the “dark and deep” woods, their lure away from quotidian life, as an allegory for the temptation of suicide. The physical setting is ominous—“Between the woods and frozen lake”—and so is the temporal setting: “The darkest evening of the year.” The climate is no less ominous. The snow covering the scene, falling and “fill[ing] up” the woods, evokes an ineluctable feeling of burial. From this existential perspective, the speaker adopts Hamlet’s troubled question, and the “sleep” he incants in the final lines is a gesture towards the long sleep of death. It is a testament to the sureness of Frost’s poetic hand that readers are left uncertain as to whether the speaker accedes to the lure of death—and whether he even feels the lure in the first place.
- For discussion: Do you find the interpretation of the poem as a...
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