Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of Frost’s most beloved lyrics. It retains great popularity among the general public as well as among scholars. It is almost always included in anthologies and was second only to The Road Not Taken as the poem respondents said they most liked to read when former American poet laureate Robert Pinsky took his 1998 poll to try to identify America’s favorite poem. During John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president, Kennedy had a set speech, which he always ended by quoting the final lines of the poem about having promises to keep and “miles to go before I sleep.” Lawrance Thompson recalls the “odd juxtaposition of the tight lyric form, with its unusual rhyme scheme, and the sprawling, discursive conversational tone of ‘New Hampshire’ ” (238).
Frost once told his friend Reginald Cook that the poem contained all he ever knew (Parini, 212). He claimed it came to him when he went outside to look at the sun after he had been working all night on “New Hampshire.” Frost said, “I always thought [the poem] was a product of autointoxication coming from tiredness” (Cook, 66). He also said of the poem, “That one I’ve been more bothered with more than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed,” meaning, of course, that it should not be overanalyzed or overread. He said that all it means is that “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home” (Cook, 64). Some readers would maintain that to them it means much more than that.
The poem is not simply a description of a natural scene but is about a person experiencing the scene. Frost once said coyly, “I guess I’m not a nature poet, I have only written two poems without a human being in them.” The speaker finds himself out alone in the evening, as in so many of Frost’s poems, including the opening poem, “Into My Own,” in his first collection, A Boy’s Will. But here the speaker travels by horse and carriage. On this night he stops to watch the “woods fill up with snow,” and he muses “Whose woods these are I think I know.” The owner of the woods has a house in the village, the speaker recalls, emphasizing that the landowner does not live in the country.
Frost wrote in “The Constant Symbol,” “There’s an indulgent smile I get for the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza. . . . I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred. And it was all right so long as I didn’t suffer deflection.” The speaker imagines in that line that the “horse must think it queer” that he has stopped to take in the magical scene. There is no practical reason to stop between the woods and the lake on the “darkest evening of the year.” The horse shakes his harness bells as if “[t]o ask if there is some mistake.” The speaker is projecting onto the animal a human concern. The sound of the bells rings out in the quiet of the woods, where the only other “sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.”
The fact that the horse must think it queer points out that the workaday horse cannot be aware of the stillness and beauty of these woods. Nature is not aware of itself, and the horse, as a part of nature, is not aware of the setting. Humans, however, have a special relationship to nature. They are both inside and outside of it, but they also can step back and reflect on their relationship.
The speaker finds the woods “lovely, dark, and deep” and inviting—or, at a minimum, appealing. He seems to be content and longs to find himself lost in them, off the road, solitary. Nature often has a powerful hold on Frost’s speakers, as in “The Sound of Trees,” where the speaker drops his head to his shoulder as the trees sway theirs in the wind. After the private moment passes, the speaker again reminds himself of his life. He is bound, as is the woman of “The Silken Tent,” to his responsibilities. He has “promises to keep” and the “miles to go” before he sleeps. The sort of sleep to which the poem alludes is the deepest of all sleeps. The speaker might be taken for a weary traveler, relishing the solitude of the woods on this dark evening when the snow, which brings a winter’s death, has an opiate affect. The speaker has his moment of reflection and then snaps back to the everyday. Perhaps his attitude toward his “promises” will be affected by this deep but temporary reflection.
After reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost ad-libbed in his lecture “On Taking Poetry,” the 1955 Bread Loaf School of English address,
Now, you see, the first thing about that is to take it right between the eyes just as it is, and that’s the ability to do that: to take it right between the eyes like a little blow and not, you know, take it in the neuter sort of. And then, you know, the next thing is your inclinations with it.
And that is how to avoid over-reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Abad, Gemino H. “Stopping by Woods: The Hermeneutics of a Lyric Poem,” Diliman Review 20 (1972): 25–40. Armstrong, James. “The ‘Death Wish’ in ‘Stopping by Woods,’ ” College English 25, no. 6 (March 1964): 440, 445. Cook, Reginald L. “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems,” American Literature 27 (March 1956): 66. Frank, Bernhard. “Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ ” Explicator 40, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 43–45. Hamilton, David. “The Echo of Frost’s Woods.” In Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, edited by Earl J. Wilcox and Jonathan N. Barron, 123–131. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000. Monteiro, George. “To Point or Not to Point: Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods,’ ” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 16, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 38–40. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999. Richardson, Mark. The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997, 189–195. Shurr, William H. “Once More to the ‘Woods’: A New Point of Entry into Frost’s Most Famous Poem,” New England Quarterly 47, no. 4 (December 1974): 584–594. Thompson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915–1938. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002, 170–173.