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

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Robert Frost was indeed a very tricky poet. As he has actually called his "The Road Not Taken" a very tricky poem, he likely became 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 Reciting "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Commentary

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" seems simple, but its nuanced phrase, "And miles to go before I sleep," offers much about which to speculate.

First Stanza: Stopping to Muse

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.

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: What the Horse Thinks

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.

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: Soft Wind and Flakes of Snow

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.

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.

Fourth Stanza: Promises and Mile to Go

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 speaker actually describes the scene as "lovely, dark and deep." This "lovely, dark and deep" remains the only description of the woods. Most of the poem is taken up in speculation about who might see him or what the horse might think. But with line 13, the reader learns that the speaker simply thinks the woods are "lovely, dark and deep."

Then the speaker concludes with the final three lines stating that he has made promises to others and he must keep those promises and that he has many more miles to travel before he can "sleep." In these final lines, the speaker is offering a reason why he should get going and stop dallying here by these woods.

But the reason remains wide open to interpretation from the most simple to the most sinister. Perhaps the speaker is simply saying he has to get home because he has people waiting for him and things to do, and his home is many miles away.

A Nuanced Repetition

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.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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Questions & Answers

Question: In the first stanza of Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening", third line, who does "he" refer to?

Answer: The owner of the woods.

Question: What is the function of Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

Answer: The poem dramatizes a man's musing as he stops to watch snow falling in a wooded area in winter.

Question: In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” what is the function of the first and second stanzas?

Answer: The first stanza reports the speaker's location and what he is doing. The second stanza allows the speaker to guess what his horse is thinking.

Question: What type of poem is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

Answer: The poem is a lyric.

Question: What does the speaker in Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” want to do?

Answer: The speaker in Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” wants to sit quietly and observe the beauty of snow falling in the wooded area.

Question: What questions does the first stanza of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" imply from what the speaker says?

Answer: 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?

Question: Why does the speaker of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" repeat the line, "Miles to go before I sleep"? Does the second one mean he wants to die and is thinking about suicide?

Answer: Critics who have gleaned contemplated suicide from the poem take it much too far. The poem is replete with nuance especially in that repeated line, but whether the repeated line means exactly the same as the first it left up to reader speculation. The emphasis remains on the simplicity of this poem which readers can enjoy despite a possible difference in the meaning of the repeated phrase.

Question: In Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," what were the speaker and his horse doing?

Answer: In Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the speaker and his horse have stopped by a woods to watch the snow falling.

Question: How do poetic devices reinforce the speaker’s intention in the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy" by Robert Frost?

Answer: First, a word about the nature of poetry. This question—"How do poetic devices reinforce the speaker’s intention in the poem?"—demonstrates a major error in thinking about poetry, or any work of art. The speaker/poet’s “intention” can not be known; even if the poet makes a statement claiming an “intention,” readers/listeners cannot take such a confession as gospel: the only testimony is the poem itself. Readers/listeners of a poem can experience only what the poem is doing, not what the poet/speaker of the poem intended, or may claim to intend, it to do.

Second, poetic devices are often used in poems to communicate on, a figurative level, thoughts, emotions, events, and ideas that are ineffable and thus cannot be communicated on a literal level. Thus, poetic devices could never perform the function of “reinforc[ing] the speaker’s intention.”

Third, regarding Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: This poem remains quite literal. Its use of poetic devices is limited to rime and meter. The rime scheme is AABA CCDC DDED EEEE; the meter is iambic tetrameter.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... .”)

Question: Is the speaker in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" contemplating suicide?

Answer: 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," the reader will likely wonder if he also thought of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as a tricky poem.

Question: Why was the horse confused by the speaker's behavior in Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"?

Answer: The speaker thinks his horse must be thinking that it is an odd thing to do to be stopping and staring out where there is no house nearby, just "a woods and frozen lake" while it is getting dark.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 16, 2018:

Robert Frost is likely the biggest name in American poetry, one of the most inspiring to so many readers. He is often considered a nature poet, an idea with which he did not agree. He asserted that he always wrote focusing on the human condition, the mind, the heart and soul. He is one of most philosophic of any American poets, along with Whitman and Dickinson. His poems have been widely anthologized and have also been quoted in many fine movies. His work is always worth reading and studying.

Thank you, Sam, for your response. Glad to know that you will continue to appreciate poetry.

Sam Thomas on March 15, 2018:

It's quite interesting and inspiring to understand the concept deeply without making a mess of everything. It has created a great passion in me for poems. Thanks a lot.

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