"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": Background
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a well-known Robert Frost classic that has become a mainstay in English classes throughout the U.S. and beyond. First published in 1923, it quickly became a popular poem to commit to memory and recite due to its short length and mysteriously impactful content.
Although many readers know all of the poem's words by heart, its interpretation isn't quite as straightforward. Should readers take Frost's words literally and see nothing beyond the snow, the horse and the woods? Or is there something more to ponder? With Frost, the latter is usually the case.
In This Article
- The Poem in Full
- Speculation About Meaning
- Line-by-Line Analysis
- Major Themes
- Literary and Poetic Devices
- Background About Its Composition
- Use in Culture and Media
- Other Well-Known Poems by Frost
- Awards and Accolades
- Other Well-Known Poets From the Era
Speculation About the Poem's Meaning
Readers often find Frost's poem somewhat dark, albeit beautiful, and many assume it has something to do with death and depression. When asked if the poem had anything to do with death or suicide, the poet denied it, preferring to keep everyone guessing by simply saying "No."
Many scholars still think, however, that the poem could be construed as a dream-like tale of someone passing away or saying a final goodbye.
In many ways, it's a poem that trusts the reader. The words, sounds and images appeal to all—from those who regard it as no more than a serene winter scene featuring snowy woods, a horse and a rider to those who feel a morose shudder when they read the final two lines.
It is this ambiguity that makes the poem a classic and keeps it relevant so many years after its publication. The narrative sets up a subtle tension between the timeless attraction of the lovely woods and the pressing obligations of the present moment.
Despite the poem's modest length, it gives readers plenty to examine and ponder. Looking at it line by line and stanza by stanza is a great way to get submerged in its meaning.
First Stanza (Lines 1–4)
Starting off a poem with a possessive pronoun is a brave and unusual thing to do, but Frost manages to make it work. It immediately grabs the reader's attention—it's as if the speaker/narrator is sitting close by, thinking out loud or perhaps whispering. Their initial thought isn't crystal clear, as they only think they know who owns the woods.
This is the first uncertainty introduced in the poem. The narrator makes this statement to reassure themself as they come to a stop to break their nighttime journey.
There is a gentle, slightly mysterious atmosphere created by the second, third and fourth lines, which suggest that the owner of the woods lives elsewhere, is separate and won't see the trespassing narrator observing his woods. It's as if there's something clandestine going on. Yet, somehow, the image presented to the reader is as innocent as a scene on a Christmas card.
The steadiness of rhythm in each line suggests that there is nothing odd at all about what is going on.
Second Stanza (Lines 5–8)
The second stanza concentrates on the horse's reaction to the rider stopping. Enjambment, a poetic device in which one line runs into another without a loss of sense, is employed throughout. In effect, this is one long sentence whose syntax is unbroken by punctuation.
Again, the tetrameter (more on the poem's meter below) reassures and lulls the reader into a questionable sense of security. The language is simple, yet its meaning can be interpreted in multiple ways. Queer is a word that means odd or strange, and the implication is that the narrator doesn't ordinarily stop to admire the view; he only stops at farmhouses to feed and water the horse.
So, why stop tonight of all nights? "The darkest evening of the year" may suggest that it's December 21st—the winter solstice and longest night of the year. Could the word "darkest" be misleading to the reader? We know from the snow and cold that it is definitely winter, but "darkest" could also be referring to the narrator's emotional state or perception of the undisclosed task at hand.
Here sits the rider on their horse in what appears to be a dark, cold and inhospitable countryside. Are they staying too long? Are they thinking too much? The long vowels in this section seem to reinforce the doubts of the horse as to why its rider chooses to linger at such an uncanny moment.
Third Stanza (Lines 9–12)
The horse is uncertain. It shakes the bells on its harness, reminding the rider that this whole business—stopping by the woods—is a tad disturbing. This isn't what they normally do. This is unfamiliar territory.
It takes a creature like a horse, a symbol of intuition, noble grace and sacrifice, to focus the rider's mind on reality. They ought to be moving ahead. There's something about the way the narrator is fixed on the woods that worries the horse—something apart from the cold and the dark.
There is no logical, direct or rational answer given to the horse. Instead, we're confronted with the narrator's beautifully rendered observation in lines 11 and 12, where alliteration and assonance (defined in the poetic devices section below) join together in a kind of gentle sound-dance.
Fourth and Final Stanza (Lines 13–16)
The final stanza features the speaker again reaffirming the peace and haunting beauty of the snowy woods. Perhaps, on another night, they would have dismounted and strode into the trees, never to return.
The idyllic lure of nature and its ability to distract from the every day are strong themes here. How tempting is it to simply withdraw into the deep silence of the woods and leave the responsibilities of the day behind? The narrator; the rider; the contemplative master of the horse is already committed to the duties of their ongoing life. Their loyalties forbid them from entering the dream world.
As much as they would love to melt into the snowy scene before them, they cannot—at least not now. The final two lines reinforce the reality of this situation. It will be a long time before the narrator disengages from the conscious world.
Prominent Themes in "Stopping by Woods"
In poetry, themes are major ideas explored by the author through a poem's characters, setting and plot. Themes are often abstract concepts like coming of age, pessimism or immortality. The major themes of isolation, duty/responsibility and the tranquility of nature in "Stopping by Woods" provide additional avenues through which its meaning can be analyzed.
The poem's narrator seems to find comfort in their own isolation. The first three stanzas focus heavily on the fact that they (with the exception of their horse) are alone and unnoticed as they stop in the dark woods. Lines like "He will not see me stopping here," "To stop without a farmhouse near," and "The only other sound's the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake" repeatedly remind the reader that the events of the poem take place far from any group or observer.
The narrator enjoys the solitude of their journey and ponders briefly about abandoning their course in favor of remaining isolated and appreciating their earthly surroundings under the cover of night.
Duty and responsibility are also important themes in the poem. Despite the peace and comfort the narrator seems to feel while alone in the dark woods, they have "promises to keep" that prevent them from continuing to indulge in the serenity of their nocturnal isolation. The rider is on their way to some destination to carry out some prearranged purpose, and while the peaceful woods tempt them to stay, their duty compels them to continue.
The Tranquility of Nature
While the poem alludes to society (e.g. "His house is in the village though"), it takes place entirely in the natural world "Between the woods and frozen lake." While in the end, the narrator's societal obligations compel them to continue on their journey, their short-lived respite in the "lovely, dark and deep" woods seems to be the poem's primary focus.
Structure and Literary/Poetic Devices
"Stopping by Woods" incorporates a number of well-known literary and poetic devices that can aid in its analysis. While these conventions may or may not have bearing on the piece's meaning, a fuller understanding and appreciation of the poem can be gained through their examination.
This poem is written in iambic tetrameter. That is, almost all of the lines have eight syllables and follow the daDUM daDUM beat, with each unstressed syllable being followed by a stressed syllable. Each pair of syllables is a beat, an iambic foot.
Tetrameter refers to the number of feet in each line. "Tetra" means four—in this case, it means that there are four beats (eight syllables) per line. Meter simply refers to the rhythmic structure of the lines.
So, when we put it all together, "Stopping by Woods" is written in iambic tetrameter because each line consists of eight syllables (four pairs) the first unstressed, the second stressed. Some readers assert that the regular rhythm maintained throughout the poem mirrors the steady plod of a slow-moving horse.
The rhyme scheme is aaba bbcb ccdc dddd. All of the poem's rhymes are full, meaning that a rhymed word's stressed vowel and all of the sounds that follow it are identical to those of the word it is rhymed with.
Rhyming words are very important in this poem, as they contribute to the duality of moving on vs. stopping, which is a major theme. Note that in the first three stanzas, the third line does not rhyme with the opening two lines and the last. It creates an obstacle—it temporarily stops the smooth flow. Yet, in each case, this third line is a connecting link to the stanza that follows, so it provides momentum as well.
Repetition is used only in the poem's final two lines. While repetition can serve any number of purposes in poetry, it is often assumed that repeated lines are important and deserve special consideration. Why does the narrator repeat the line, "And miles to go before I sleep"? Is it simply to stress the length of the night's remaining journey?
Some readers have suggested that the first instance of the line should be taken more literally, while the second instance should be interpreted more figuratively. That is, the first time the statement is made, it could be referring to the actual distance remaining between the narrator and their destination. When the narrator repeats the line, however, they may be expanding its meaning by reflecting on the amount of working, living and traveling that remain to be done before their eternal respite can begin.
Rubaiyat Stanza Structure
The poem is composed of four stanzas (think of a stanza as a group of lines, or a poetic paragraph), each of which consists of four lines. Four-line stanzas in poetry are commonly referred to as quatrains. Quatrains written in iambic tetrameter (or pentameter) with a rhyme scheme of aaba are known as Rubaiyat stanzas. While the first three quatrains in the poem are Rubaiyat stanzas, the fourth and final is not.
In poetry, tone refers to a piece's overall mood or attitude as interpreted by its reader. Most agree that the tone of this poem is serene and contemplative, but some readers have suggested the tone may in fact be uneasy or even depressed. A poem's perceived tone can influence its interpretation—readers who find the tone somber and uneasy may be more likely to interpret the poem as having to do with death, whereas those who find the tone calm and serene may be more likely to interpret it as a simple musing about nature duty and respite.
In poetry, personification refers to applying human traits or emotions to non-human objects or animals. In the third stanza, in lines nine and ten, the narrator's horse is personified when it shakes its harness bells to question why they have stopped.
Alliteration refers to the use of two or more words that begin with the same sound in close proximity to one another. There are several examples of alliteration in "Stopping by Woods" (Whose woods/His house/watch his woods fill up with/He gives his harness/Sound's the sweep/dark and deep).
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound, and consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound (as opposed to rhyme, which is the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds). There are several examples of assonance and consonance in the poem (His house is/is in the village/gives his/if there is/easy wind and downy).
When and How Was the Poem Written?
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" was penned by Frost in 1922 at his home in Vermont. He said the idea for the piece came to him "as if [he'd] had a hallucination" in the early morning hours after an all-night writing session for his longer-form poem, "New Hampshire." Upon viewing the sunrise, Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods" in just "a few minutes without strain."
"Stopping by Woods" in Culture and Media
- Frost was one of President John F. Kennedy's favorite poets. After the president's death in 1963, journalist Sid Davis recited several lines of the poem to conclude a broadcast report focused on the delivery of the president's casket to the White House.
- Canadian politician Justin Trudeau adapted the last few lines of the poem and included them in a eulogy he delivered at the funeral of his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The modified final stanza was spoken, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. He has kept his promises and earned his sleep."
- In director Quentin Tarantino's exploitation horror film, Death Proof, a character named Stuntman Mike recites the last stanza of the poem to a character named Arlene in exchange for a lap dance.
- The final lines of the poem were used as code words to incite violence from Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. in the 1977 espionage film, Teflon.
Other Acclaimed Poems by Frost
"Mending Wall" (1914)
"The Road Not Taken" (1916)
"Nothing Gold Can Stay" (1923)
"Fire and Ice" (1923)
"Tree at My Window" (1928)
"Acquainted With the Night" (1928)
"Desert Places" (1937)
Frost's Awards, Accolades and Cultural Recognition
- Frost received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943.
- He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1930.
- He was awarded a Gold Medal for Poetry by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1939.
- He was given a Congressional Gold Medal in 1960 "in recognition of his poetry, which enriched the culture of the United States and the philosophy of the world."
- He was named Poet Laureate of Vermont in 1961.
Sources and Further Reading
- Frost, C. (n.d.). Sincerity and Inventions: On Robert Frost. Poets.org via Internet Archive. Retrieved March 9th, 2020.
- Lennard, John. (2005). The Poetry Handbook. Oxford University Press.
- Poets.org. (n.d.). Robert Frost. Poets.org. Retrieved March 9th, 2020.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey