"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923)
On the surface, this poem is simplicity itself. The speaker is stopping by some woods on a snowy evening. He or she takes in the lovely scene in near-silence, is tempted to stay longer, but acknowledges the pull of obligations and the considerable distance yet to be traveled before he or she can rest for the night. Basically on a dark winter evening, the narrator stops his sleigh to watch the snow falling in the woods. At first he worries that the owner of the property will be upset by his presence, but then he remembers that the owner lives in town, and he is free to enjoy the beauty of the falling snow. The sleigh horse is confused by his master’s behavior — stopping far away from any farmhouse — and shakes his harness bells in impatience. After a few more moments, the narrator reluctantly continues on his way.
The poem consists of four (almost) identically constructed stanzas. Each line is iambic, with four stressed syllables: Within the four lines of each stanza, the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. The third line does not, but it sets up the rhymes for the next stanza. For example, in the third stanza, queer, near, and year all rhyme, but lake rhymes withshake, mistake, and flake in the following stanza. The notable exception to this pattern comes in the final stanza, where the third line rhymes with the previous two and is repeated as the fourth line. Do not be fooled by the simple words and the easiness of the rhymes; this is a very difficult form to achieve in English without debilitating a poem’s content with forced rhymes.
This is a poem to be marveled at and taken for granted. Like a big stone, like a body of water, like a strong economy, however it was forged it seems that, once made, it has always been there. Frost claimed that he wrote it in a single nighttime sitting; it just came to him. Perhaps one hot, sustained burst is the only way to cast such a complete object, in which form and content, shape and meaning, are alloyed inextricably. One is tempted to read it, nod quietly in recognition of its splendor and multivalent meaning, and just move on. But one must write essays. Or study guides. Like the woods it describes, the poem is lovely but entices us with dark depths—of interpretation, in this case. It stands alone and beautiful, the account of a man stopping by woods on a snowy evening, but gives us a come-hither look that begs us to load it with a full inventory of possible meanings. We protest, we make apologies, we point to the dangers of reading poetry in this way, but unlike the speaker of the poem, we cannot resist. The last two lines are the true culprits. They make a strong claim to be the most celebrated instance of repetition in English poetry. The first “And miles to go before I sleep” stays within the boundaries of literalness set forth by the rest of the poem. We may suspect, as we have up to this point, that the poem implies more than it says outright, but we can’t insist on it; the poem has gone by so fast, and seemed so straightforward. Then comes the second “And miles to go before I sleep,” like a soft yet penetrating gong; it can be neither ignored nor forgotten. The sound it makes is “Ahhh.” And we must read the verses again and again and offer trenchant remarks and explain the “Ahhh” in words far inferior to the poem. For the last “miles to go” now seems like life; the last “sleep” now seems like death. The basic conflict in the poem, resolved in the last stanza, is between an attraction toward the woods and the pull of responsibility outside of the woods. What do woods represent? Something good? Something bad? Woods are sometimes a symbol for wildness, madness, the pre-rational, the looming irrational. But these woods do not seem particularly wild. They are someone’s woods, someone’s in particular—the owner lives in the village. But that owner is in the village on this, the darkest evening of the...
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