STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost

 

About the Poet:

Robert Frost was born to William Prescott Frost Jr. and Isabelle Moodie on 26th March 1894 in San Francisco. After he lost his father to Tuberculosis, a six-year-old Frost moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was during his high school years in Lawrence that a young Frost who would later go on to become the Poet Laureate of the United States of America got interested in reading and writing. Frost later enrolled at Harvard University. In 1912, Frost moved with his wife Elinor Miriam White to New Hampshire and it was then that he came in contact with British poets who greatly influenced his poetry. By the time Frost returned to America in 1915, his reputation as a poet had been concretized and he already had two poetry collections to his fame – A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. By the 1920s, Frost was considered at the top of the poets’ circle in America. Some of his important collections are New Hampshire, A Further Range, Steeple Bush, In the Clearing, and so on. He was awarded frequently during his lifetime receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry.

About the Poem:

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening was written by Robert Frost in 1922 and published in 1923 in his New Hampshire Volume.

This poem is a perfect exemplification of Frost’s meditative style of writing. The biography has it, that Frost wrote in course of a single night time, such that it can be considered as a spontaneous overflow of emotion. However, the spontaneity in the poem is not of the kind which we notice in the poems of the Romantics of the 19th Century. It is muted, somber, and deeply introspective. Following traditionFrostian poetry, this poem is very simple. There is hardly a word in this poem for which we will have to open the dictionary. Nor are there any devices that shroud any transparency of meaning. This simplicity is a typical trait of Frost’s poems. However, beneath the veneer of simplicity Frost has planted a deep philosophy born out of a conflict between pleasure and responsibilities – something which we all experience at every point in my life. It is the universality of the message of the poem which makes it speak to all ages and all readers. It has been almost ninety-two years since the poem got published, but readers across the globe still read it with the same interest since it will always be contemporary to the human condition. This poem bears testimony to the fact that poetry does not necessarily have to be complex. It can be very accessible and still be one of the revered pieces of poetry.

Stanza-wise Summary:

1st Stanza:

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.

The first stanza documents the narrator’s first response upon entering the woods. Going by the repertoire of Frost’s subject matter, it is safe to assume that the woods belong to the English countryside. The narrator says that he thinks he is aware of the ownership of the woods and that the owner has his home in the village, away from the wilderness. With the very first line, it becomes clear to the readers that the narrator exercises no proprietorship over the woods. The third line of the stanza gives the readers a slight indication that the narrator might be trespassing – “He will not see me stopping here”. This musing of the narrator makes us wonder whether the owner would have had a problem with someone randomly stopping at his woods if he were present at the scene to notice the same. With the words “fill up with snow’, the poet draws a beautiful picture of snow-flakes spreading across the wilderness. The word ‘his’ in the last line opens a window of meaning. Frost could have used the article ‘the’ but instead, he chooses to use ‘his’ to indicate the fact that the narrator has no scruples against enjoying the beauty of something which does not belong to him.

The task for the reader: Replace the words ‘his’ with ‘the’ to check how the meaning is getting altered. This will go on to show that every word used in a poem is used economically and with a purpose.

2nd Stanza:

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.

The second stanza speaks about the absurdity of the act of stopping in the middle of woods on a really cold night. This act of the poet perplexes his horse. Having traveled with his master quite a bit, the horse is used to stopping only when there is a farmhouse near in order to take rest after a long period of travel. Hence, the horse finds it a rather absurd act on the part of the narrator to stop when there is no scope of rest. As readers, it is hard to say whether the horse, being just an animal really thought all of this. Maybe the narrator himself considered his act of stopping on his journey without any purpose strange and tried to convey the strangeness of his actions by speaking about it as if they could be the horse’s thoughts. The third line paints a picture of the geography of the location in which the poet is stopping – there are trees around and also a frozen lake. The fact that the lake is frozen reveals that it is high wintertime. This information gets stressed in the last line of the poem when the narrator declares that it “the darkest evening of the year”. In other words, it is the peak of winter.

3rd Stanza:

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.

This stanza highlights the silence of the night. The narrator’s horse shakes his harness which leads the bells on it to give out a jingling sound. The horse does so as a means to inquire after why the poet has stopped in the absence of a farmhouse. Apart from the sound of the bells, the poet can also hear the sound of the flowing wind and that of the soft snowflakes falling on the ground. The words, ‘only other’ accentuate the silence of the night. The night is so quiet that one can hear the wind flow and the flakes fall. Such a deep silence is also an indication of the solitude which the narrator must be experiencing during his moments in the woods.

4th Stanza:

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.

In the final stanza, the poet talks about the beauty of the woods and the sense of duty of the narrator. He says that the wilderness is lovely, dark, and deep. The darkness of the winter night is enhancing the charm of the woods in the narrator’s eyes and the density of the woods due to a large number of trees in it, makes it a pleasure to just stand and perceive the beauty of the woods. However, from the second line itself the narrator makes it very clear that although the woods are extremely enchanting, he cannot stop enjoying the pleasures which it has to offer. This is because the narrator has ‘promises to keep’. Promises here stands for any commitments that the poet might have made. It is clear that the poet is on his way to somewhere.

Critical Analysis:

On the outset, the poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening appears to be the musings of a lone traveler on the beauty of snow-filled woods on a wintery night. This is juxtaposed with his awareness of time constraints that restrict him from giving in to the beauty of Nature due to his sense of duty. However, after delving deeper into the poem we realize that the poem is a microcosm of a very common situation which we all come across at different points in our lives. It is an exemplification of those times when we are tempted to just sit back and relax; to just take a back-seat in our own lives to appreciate the small joys and pleasures that life has to offer but can’t because of all the work-load that always ties us down.

In spite of being written in an older century, this poem is all the more relevant to the life of the 21st Century when life moves at a cosmic pace and we always have someplace to get to or some pressing work breathing down our necks. While leading this busy lifestyle, there come those times when we just want to give it all up to rejuvenate and enjoy life. However, our pressing sense of duty gives us a reality check and we realize that there is no time for relaxation unless we get done with all the work that life has assigned to us. The constant tussle between pleasure and duty which makes up our life is the crux around which the poem revolves. Through this poem, Robert Frost directly speaks to all of us stuck in a similar situation in our lives and sympathizes with us through his narrator who is going through a similar dilemma. Frost assures us that if we feel like we are losing out on the small pleasures of life because of our sense of duty and responsibilities, we are not alone and there are many like us. The poet seems to be telling us that it is all right if certain moments of joy and beauty are slipping out of our hands because in life duties and responsibilities should always come first. There will always be time to relax and enjoy once we are done with a fair share of work. Relaxation and indulgences will seem much better then because we will not have the guilt of wasting time staining our enjoyment. Hence, it can be said that through his narrator, Robert Frost offers encouragement to the ones who are in the dog years of their life. It is lovely to notice how such an important philosophy of life is being imparted by the poem through the use of very simple words and a very simple situation. The brevity of the poem indeed belies its profundity.

Although Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening cannot be classified under Nature Poetry, it abounds in wonderful Nature Imagery. The poem offers a beautiful pen-picture of snow-filled woods that look nothing short of breath-taking on a lovely winter night. These woods are so enchanting that they have the power to lull a person’s sense of duty temporarily and make him stop work in order to bask in the beauty of Nature.

Another interpretation of the poem could be that the speaker is towards the end of his life – “the darkest evening of the year”. Winter is usually associated with death. Hence, at this juncture of his life, the speaker wants to make his life productive with a last burst of activity instead of giving in to the quietness and serenity which old age is usually associated with. The speaker is tempted to just let go of work and enjoy life. However, he reminds himself just in time that he must not listen to his desire to rest since rest is all he will get after death. He ends the poem with the recurring thought that he still has a lot to accomplish in life,