Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Updated on October 7, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost


Introduction: Many Questions

Robert Frost was indeed a very tricky poet. As he has actually called his "The Road Not Taken" a very tricky poem, he likely become aware that many of his poems were tricky.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is likely one of his trickiest. It seems so simple: a man stops along the road by a woodland to watch the latter fill up with snow. But what the man thinks as he watches, and what he says as he muses fills up the poem with many questions.

Readers are left to wonder a great deal about the speaker's motivations as he reports what he sees and thinks. From a simple poem, many thoughts can result from speculation about why the man stopped in the first place to how he finally snapped out of his obvious trance as he observed the beauty of the scene.

Critics who glean contemplated suicide from the poem take it much too far, but still the poem is replete with nuance especially in the repeated line, " . . . miles to go before I sleep." Does the second repetition mean exactly the same as the first? Readers can only speculate. But they can enjoy the simplicity of this poem anyway.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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.

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.

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.

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.

Frost reading his poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

First Stanza: "Whose woods these are I think I know"

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" paints a portrait of a man riding a horse (or perhaps the horse is pulling a buckboard-style wagon in which the man is riding), and he stops alongside the road next to a woods to watch the snow fall.

The poem is quite literal but also quite suggestive; for example, in the first stanza, the speaker makes a point of expressing the fact that the owner of the woods will not see him, because the owner lives in the village.

There is no indication of why this is important. Is he glad the owner won't see him? If the owner could see him, would he not stop?

Second Stanza: "My little horse must think it queer"

In the second stanza, the speaker reveals to his readers what he thinks his horse must be thinking, and he decides that the horse must think this an odd thing to do with no house nearby, just "a woods and frozen lake" while it is getting dark.

And after all, this is "the darkest evening of the year," meaning it is the first day of winter.

So the reader/listener is left to wonder why he speculates about what the horse thinks. Does he really care that horse thinks it is odd? Or is it the speaker who really thinks it odd and therefore projects his thoughts onto the horse?

Third Stanza: "He gives his harness bells a shake"

However, in the third stanza, the reader is given at least a partial answer to the question about why the speaker thinks the horse thinks it odd: the horse shakes his head and his harness rattles.

But when the speaker explains the horse's shaking head, he again projects his own thoughts onto the horse: the speaker thinks the horse shook his head to ask if the rider has made some error along the ride.

Again, the reader is left to wonder why the speaker thinks that the horse would rattle his harness to ask this.

Then the speaker suddenly seems to be brought back to the scene by noticing that the only other sound he hears beside the horse's harness is the soft wind and flakes of snow whirling about him.

A Nuanced Repetition Created Another Tricky Poem

By repeating the line, "[a]nd miles to go before I sleep," the speaker sets up an intrigue that cannot be assuaged by the reader or the critic alike. The poem, however, does not support the contentious notion that the speaker is contemplating suicide, as some have speculated.

On the other hand, there seems to be no reason that speaker seemed to snap out o his hypnotic trance brought about by the beauty of the scene: the dark and deep woods filling up with snow has been alluring.

But the speaker suddenly and without obvious provocation is yanked back to the reality of his having many miles to travel before getting back to the place where he has "promises to keep."

The poem does suggest many questions: Why does the speaker mention that the owner of the woods won't see him? Why does he speculate about what his horse must think? Why does he repeat the last line? Why did he stop in the first place?

These questions cannot be answered by the poem, and because Robert Frost called his poem, "The Road Not Taken," "a tricky poem," reader will likely wonder if he also thought of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as a tricky poem.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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