Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
My favourite American poet is Robert Frost, who was born in San Francisco in 1874 but who spent most of his life in New England, writing about the rhythms of life on a farm – mending the stone wall, picking apples, sawing wood, walking through the woods and needing to decide which path to follow. He uses very direct, simple language, often includes dialogue in his poems, and makes you feel you are there with him. Let me share with you my particular favourite:
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.
It is a memorable recreation of a winter incident and a poem that can be read on many levels. On the surface it describes a mood many of us have experienced – that desire to just stop for a moment in our busy lives and contemplate the beauty of the natural world before we have to return to our obligations. It can also be seen as a poem about a man who realises his essential ‘aloneness’ in the world. The poem begins with the poet dissociating himself from other people – the nameless owner of the land is in the village, but probably wouldn’t care that the poet is on his land. The poet even dissociates himself from the horse, who thinks his behaviour odd and shakes his harness bells. This is a man who is very much alone.
He has stopped far from human habitation in the middle of winter, a season that often symbolises death. He responds intensely to the softness of the snow and the dark depths of the woods, even though it appears to be a lifeless landscape. He seems almost transfixed by the beauty of the scene, almost ready to give up life and just sink into the natural world. But the bells remind him that he must continue his journey, through the woods and through life. The repetition of the last line acts like a pervading, repeating gong, tolling him back to life. Sleep is often a metaphor for death, but something pulls him towards life and its responsibilities. There is no doubt that the woods have a great attraction – they are restful, mysterious, seductive. Is this a poem about a death wish? Or is it only about taking time out to appreciate beauty? Is it about the conflict between civilisation and nature? Is it simply about a man out driving a horse and cart?
Enjoy this video of Robert Frost reading his poem:
Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.
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