Robert Frost’s “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.

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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.

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.

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.

Robert Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert’s mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert’s mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert’s paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert’s high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert’s grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert’s farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly,” had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost’s personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts’ first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple’s farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost’s writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such “The Tuft of Flowers” and “The Trial by Existence,” he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy’s Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost’s two book favorably, and thus Frost’s career as a poet moved forward.

Frost’s friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which was sparked by Thomas’ attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet’s reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost’s earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst’s main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a “lone wolf” in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.