ACTIVITY AND REST: FROST’S “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Today we will look at one of the best-known winter poems — Robert Frost’s

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. 

The poet is passing by a forest at evening.  He thinks he knows who the owner of the forest is, but it does not matter.  The presumed owner lives in the village, not out here in the country, so he will not see the poet stopping to watch the snow falling and covering the trees and ground.  No one will suddenly appear to ask him why he is there or what he is doing.

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. 

The poet is there with a little horse, and he supposes the horse must think it strange that the man wants to stop without any farmhouse — the kind of place where he would usually stop — nearby.  Instead, the poet has paused between the snowy woods and a frozen lake, on this, the darkest evening of the year.  By “darkest evening of the year” the poet means it is the longest night of the year, which comes at the Winter Solstice.

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 horse gives his head or body a sudden shake — which rings the many harness bells attached — to indicate that the creature feels there is something amiss; it must be a mistake to stop out in “nowhere.”  Other than that quick shake of the harness bells, the only other sound in that isolated location is that of the easy wind filled with light and fluffy snowflakes.

From what has been said so far, we can see that the poet’s little horse has harness bells — sleigh bells, which were worn about the neck or around the body just behind the front legs, or in both places,  so the poet has come to these snowy woods in a sleigh pulled by one horse.  The bells were used on sleigh horses so that people in the path of a sleigh could hear it coming, and move accordingly.

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.

The poet thinks to himself that the woods are beautiful, they are dark, and they are deep; he would like to just remain there in the chill, dark silence — far from the noise and worry of the human world — but he cannot.  He has made promises.  He has places he must be, appointments he must keep.  He must continue on his way back into the everyday world of people, because he has much to do before he can rest that night — miles yet to go before his work is finished and he can sleep.

The repetition of the last line

And miles to go before I sleep

is for emphasis, as if one is saying, “I have a long way to go, yes, a long way to go.”

The charm of this poem lies partly in its simplicity — simple words and simple rhymes — and partly in the sensory experience it provides — the cold of the night and the snow, the sound of the flakes blowing in the easy wind and the metallic jingle of the harness bells, the dark depths in the forest.  But the charm is also in the lack of details.  That is important.  We do not know who the man is, or what promises he has made that he must continue on his way, or even where is is going.  That raises the unanswered questions in our mind that we find so often in old and modern hokku, and they give a similar effect — what we may call the “unanswered question” experience.

What we do know is that for him, this pause to watch the snow falling on the deep and dark woods is a respite, a brief relief, a moment of rest from all the cares of his life.  It gives the reader too an immense sense — for the moment — of peace and tranquility, before we are called back to our responsibilities.

Though there are many possible explanations of the who and why, it would have been a fitting poem for a country doctor in the old days — one who had his visit or visits to make among scattered farmhouses, but who stops for one brief moment of peace somewhere between, to watch the woods fill up with snow.  However, he has people or patients he must see, so cannot pause as long as would like — but must continue on his long way, knowing that he will have much to do before he can finally return home and sleep.  Perhaps you have your own interpretation of the man and his duties and his goal — or wish to apply them to someone you know or to yourself, in a metaphorical way.  But the best is not to interpret them at all — just accepting the poem as it is, with its unanswered questions.

We could say that this poem — aside from its beauty — is a contrast between what we must do as humans who have our duties and responsibilities, and what we would like to do.  In terms of Chinese philosophy, it is a contrast between the yang of activity and the yin of peace and stillness and rest.  And of course the poem is set in the cold winter — the most yin time of the year.

Many people apply this poem symbolically, and then the man’s journey through the night is his duty-filled daily life, and his brief pause by the dark, chill forest is the call of death and rest — but the man has responsibilities in life that he must fulfill before he can rest in death.  Yet Frost does not actually say or imply anything about death, and I do not think the poem is to be read in that way.  In my view, Frost’s poem is both simpler and deeper than that — the often overlooked depth of everyday things like snow and cold and darkness.  But it is just human nature to find meanings — to take something and see it as a symbol of something else — so people tend to give even simple poems meanings beyond what the poet intended.  We see the same in the interpretations people attach to Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” particularly the lines

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet Frost himself made clear that he had intended no profound philosophical meaning in those simple lines.

I think what people tend to miss in Frost is that the depth and profundity in life lie in ordinary, everyday simple things — not in the intellectual interpretations we attach to them.  That is also the message of the verse form known as hokku.

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5 thoughts on “ACTIVITY AND REST: FROST’S “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

  1. Ashley

    Thank you David for this wonderful post. This poem is a favourite of mine; it is so simple and understated and yet we are “there” in those moments with Frost. It is not a doctor or any other character, it is the poet himself, like a child experiencing the wonder of the world.

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