Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost, and one of the more famous poems in the English language. I would like to take a look at some of its interesting elements.

First, as in any analysis of a poem, it’s better to begin by looking at the poem in its entirety, and appreciating it as a whole (some would say you have to start by reading it at least twice, since you must first grasp the whole in order to appreciate the individual lines in light of the whole). Here it is:

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.

Rhythm and Rhyme, and Acoustic Correspondence

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. It has chain-rhymed quatrains -a form that is known in Persian as a Rubaiyat. It’s difficult to pull off in English, because it strains linguistic resources. It is a demanding form -four rhyming lines spread across four quatrains and linking them together- and poor execution will result in rhymes that seem forced or obvious. Frost pulls it off well, with language that seems natural and appropriate.

The rhyme scheme looks like this:

A
A
B
A

B
B
C
B

C
C
D
C

D
D
D
D

That’s not the extent to which Frost is playing with sound. At a first pass, we might notice only the end-rhymes. But there are more interesting effects occurring here.

As I read the first stanza, the recurring /h/ in each line is deliberate, as is the recurring /w/, and the internal rhyme with /ill/ in lines 2 through 4. Each of these sounds establishes a subtle corrspondence, perhaps just below our conscious awareness. I map the sound correspondence in the following way, with ‘x’ representing “unused” syllables, acoustic effects bracketed with ‘/’ marks, and leaving the end rhymes as A and B:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

(The second syllable of the third line is bracketed because it creates a correspondence between two sounds in a single syllable.)

By the time we finish the third line, we have already heard a pair of /w/, a triplet of /h/, and a pair of /ill/. Here is the denouement of the first stanza: every single one of these sounds recurs in the final line, which is dense with acoustic correspondence, and thereby invested with the energy of the previous lines. Even if we don’t know why, we feel the line as powerful and satisfying.

I map the first stanza this way:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

x/w/h/w/ill/x/w/A

Visualized out this way, we can see why the line feels so powerful -it is loaded with correspondence to the previously established patterns, satisfying our subconscious urge to see those sound pairs recur. The final line effectively ties the whole stanza together, linking it through acoustic correspondence with nearly every syllable.

Sensory density and psychological fidelity

This is a powerful poem in terms of sensory density. We can feel the cold, the snow falling, the wind. We can hear the wind, the “sweep” of “downy flake”, the bells of the little horse. We can see the evening woods. The frozen lake. And so on. It is rich with sensory experiences. But for all its sensory density, the poem is remarkably internal, closely tracking the mental state of the speaker. It feels psychologically real.

It begins with the speaker wondering “whose woods these are”. There is a feeling of being lost, a feeling subtly accentuated by the inversion of the expected “whose woods are these” to “who woods these are”, which puts us slightly off-balance (as the speaker is). We then feel the movement of the speaker’s thought process -from being lost, to tentatively located- in the space of the first line, when we hear the words “I think I know”. The poem moves quickly, and we are swept up in the thought process of the speaker. Perhaps without our conscious awareness, the speaker’s thought process develops further, not explicitly, but implied by their perception of the woods: the woods are no longer “these” woods but “his woods” (the unknown man who lives in the village). The speaker becomes gradually more confident in a way that feels psychologically real.

Limitations on Human Beings, Finding Our Purpose

This is poem is largely about the perceptual limitations of thinking beings. (At a deeper level, it is about our inability to grasp the “truth” of existence in a grand sense). The first stanza embodies this theme, shifting between a feeling of being lost, then tentatively placed, then slightly more assuredly located in space; it enacts the struggle to find one’s place.

This theme is further reinforced as our attention is shifted to other characters. The unknown man who “will not see” what is happening, or the little horse who “must think it queer”. The speaker, the horse, and the unknown man are all presented in terms of their psychological limitations: what they cannot see, or cannot understand, or are struggling to know.

In the final stanza, we get the sense that the speaker will not keep his “promises”. He wants to sleep, but he has miles to go. The repetition of this final line suggests an ongoing task; the poem ends not with finality, but by propelling the speaker towards the “miles to go”, for which we have no suggestion of a resolution.

The speaker’s “sleep”, in this case, seems to represent death. His “promises” are those owed to his fellow beings, represented by the village outside of the woods. The never-ending task of a thinking being is to find their purpose among their fellow beings (as the speaker first begins by trying to find his place) and this task is not done until we’re dead. It is ultimately a poem about searching for meaning in life. But it is a search that can have no resolution.

This should not be interpreted as a depressing poem. Frost says the woods are “lovely, dark and deep”. The implication here is that our being lost in the dark woods of life, of trying to find our purpose, is actually a lovely thing.

On the topic of the darkness of this poem, it does enact suicidal thoughts; the speaker looks at the woods and wants to “sleep”. Some part of him wants death. But this isn’t the focal point of the poem, or its resolution. Ultimately, the speaker continues trudging on, because of “promises” owed to his fellow beings; he will continue searching for his purpose in the dark.

Oxford Comma

Let me make take this opportunity to make a plea for the Oxford comma. Consider this line from Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

Here, the absence of an Oxford comma means that this line should be read not as listing three qualities of the woods -“lovely”, “dark”, and “deep”- but rather, an entirely different meaning: the loveliness of the woods consists in their being “dark and deep”. And further, if we take this line metaphorically, Frost is saying that the loveliness of life consists in not knowing our purpose -that the beauty comes from our endless search to find meaning in the darkness. Alternatively, we might read this line as suggesting the loveliness offered by the sleep of death -dark and deep- and embodying the speaker’s suicidal thoughts. Or both at the same time. It is a powerful line.

However, if for some tragic reason we stopped using the Oxford comma, we wouldn’t know how to read this line, because we wouldn’t have a mark to distinguish these two possible readings (if the Oxford comma was optional, then we wouldn’t know whether the line simply had an omitted comma). English would lose some of its expressive capacity and would be, to that extent, broken.

The argument for dropping the Oxford comma seems to be that, in certain cases, it is obvious from the context that the items are meant to be read as a list (for example, “the three fruits were an apple, an orange and a banana”). This is a bad argument. We might just as well omit the period from sentences that close a paragraph. Besides, that usage looks jarring to people who respect the Oxford comma. We will understand your meaning, probably, but you also needlessly risk causing annoyance and giving the impression that you don’t care about language.

Don’t break English. Use the Oxford comma.

Santa Claus

Finally, just for fun, let us just consider that this poem might really just be about Santa Claus.

Who is this strange man who has stopped in someone else’s woods at night, on a snowy evening? What are all these promises he has to keep? Why so many miles to travel?

The “darkest evening of the year” would be the 21st of December. But perhaps Frost has taken some liberties here. “The fourth darkest evening of the year” doesn’t quite fit in the established meter, and isn’t quite as neat.

The harness bells evoke a reindeer, and the animal appears in a stanza rhyming on queer/near/year. Is “reindeer” being playfully implied by rhyme?

The opening stanza introduces our speaker, and it rhymes on know/though/snow. Playfully implying “ho-ho-ho” through rhyme?

Well, read the poem again for yourself and see if that interpretation makes any sense:

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.

Final words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post.

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