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...
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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 meditation on death convincing? Why or why not? Use specific examples from the poem to support your views.
- For discussion: If the speaker were considering Hamlet’s question (“To be or not to be”), which answer do you think he is most likely to arrive at? Again, use examples from the text to support your views.
Additional Discussion Questions:
- What accounts for the diversity of readings and interpretations that have been brought to this short poem? How does Frost craft a poem that seems straightforward in its narrative and images and yet is deeply thematically ambiguous? Which techniques produce this quality?
- What role does the horse play in the poem? What, if anything, does the horse represent? Does it sway the speaker at all in his decision-making?
- What is the function of the word “though” in line 2? How does it shape the tone and logic of the poem?
- Why does Frost refrain from placing a comma after the word “dark” in line 13?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Difficulties of Discussing Death: Any in-depth discussion of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” encompasses the topic of death. Even if one does not view the poem as a meditation on death, one must consider the possibility, given the suggestions laced into Frost’s figurative language. As a result, the poem can be difficult to discuss in classroom settings. The topics of death and suicide are unsettling for everyone, especially for younger readers.
- What to do: Allow the students to shape the discussion around death. Ask questions that subtly guide your students to consider all the poem’s possibilities; if they bring up the topic of death, they may be more open-minded about it.
- What to do: Return to the poem’s ambiguity around death. Students need not fall into literal notions of how death figures in the poem because Frost handles it so delicately and obliquely. Underscore that if death occurs, it does so as a thought or feeling in the speaker, not as a reality.
The Ambiguities of Frost’s Language: Frost uses language that is remarkably spare and clear and yet at the same time ambiguous and often difficult to penetrate. The simplest phrases and images open up mysteries. Why does the speaker stop to “watch the woods fill up with snow”? What is significant about the location “between the woods and frozen lake”? Why are the wintry elements, in truth cold and uncomfortable, described as “easy wind and downy flake”? What tone is conveyed by the repetition of the final line?
- What to do: Encourage your students to explore the poem’s ambiguities without reaching for complete or final answers. For each ambiguous phrase and line, foster discussion about the various possible meanings that arise, welcoming divergent opinions and readings.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the poem.
Encourage students to memorize and recite Frost’s poem. Although rote learning has waned in recent years, there is no better way to become familiar with a poem than to memorize it. “Stopping by Woods,” with its musicality, simplicity, and brevity, is an especially memorable poem, and its phrases linger and echo in the mind. Consider assigning your students the task of memorizing it and reciting, either to their peers in small groups or to the entire class. Recitation both cements the process of memorization and gives students access to the experience of speaking poetry, allowing them to feel the physical presence of the words.
Have students write their own poem. One excellent way to understand a poem is to take apart its form and construct it anew, writing a poem of one’s own using the same structure. This exercise will be especially fruitful for students who enjoyed learning about the Structure, Style, and Sound of “Stopping by Woods.” Encourage your students to write a poem that, like Frost’s poem, contains three quatrains of iambic tetrameter in an AABA chain rhyme scheme. By working to fulfill the demands of Frost’s form, they will gain greater insight into his poetry. This exercise may even make them sharper, more thoughtful writers.