Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost
The American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963) was something of a laureate for the nation. The US Senate passed a resolution honouring his 75th birthday: ‘His poems have helped to guide American thought and humor and wisdom, setting forth to our minds a reliable representation of ourselves and of all men.’ His home state of Vermont, New England, named a mountain after him. And he was the first poet invited to recite a piece at a presidential inauguration, that of John F. Kennedy in 1961. For this wrote ‘Dedication’ but the sunlight dazzled him and he reverted to the president’s original choice, ‘The Gift Outright’, and revised its ending on the spot for the occasion. When, in November 1963, the coffin of JFK was brought to the White House, mere months after Frost’s own death, a broadcaster concluded his bulletin with this poem ‘Stopping by woods’ but broke down. Plenty in Frost points to those who have come after him, particularly Mary Oliver, and his work is rewarding in its celebration of nature, affirmation of life, and quiet, philosophical questions.
This piece is both formal and lyrical. Note the rhyming structure: three lines the same but one different, which becomes the main rhyme in the following stanza, and so on. It’s also in iambic pentameter, as deployed in sonnets, and used by Shakespeare and Dante, and the ‘chain rhyme’ of that one line forming the main next rhyme recalls the Italian’s terza rima. This is only broken at the end, with the repeated line to emphasise that recognition of what lies ahead. It is essentially about a lone traveller through the countryside, pausing for a moment with nature in the deep midwinter. But it also holds something for all those who make long journeys at this time of year. Theologically, the Holy Family might be recalled on their own long journey – although with a donkey instead of a horse, and probably without so much snow. But there is a point here about their particular journey with moments of reflection, similar to the way in which T.S Eliot endows the Magi. And might it even be an allusion to Father Christmas, the Santa Claus gift-giver of legend himself, who has so many ‘promises to keep’? For ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 18.3).
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.