Literature

A Short Analysis of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is, after ‘The Road Not Taken’, Robert Frost’s best-known and best-loved poem. (Frost himself called it ‘my best bid for remembrance’.) It seems a rather straightforward poem, but, as with that other Frost poem, its simplicity is only on the surface, and is belied here by several things, including the sophisticated rhyme pattern Frost employs. Before reading our analysis, we recommend reading ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which you can find here.

‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is easy enough to summarise. Frost passes some woods one evening during winter, and tells us that he thinks a man who owns the woods lives in the village some distance away. So the owner will not notice Frost stopping by to observe the snow falling upon the trees.

Next, Frost tells us that his horse probably thinks it odd that its rider has chosen to stop here, with no farmhouse around. What, surely they can’t bed down for the night here? As if registering its disbelief, the horse shakes its harness-bell as if to prompt an explanation from Frost. Everything else is silent around them, apart from the soft wind and the slight sound of snowfall.

Frost concludes ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by telling us that, lovely, dark, and inviting as the woods are, he has prior commitments that he must honour, so he must leave this place of peace and tranquillity and continue on his journey before he can sleep for the night.

See? ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is easy enough to summarise or paraphrase. But this only goes so far in telling us what the poem means. To interpret and perceive its deeper meaning, we need to consider the wider context of the poem, and what Frost is saying about the values of ‘stopping by woods on a snowy evening’ (why woods, and why snow, why the evening? and so on). Everything is filled with a significance at once endorsed and belied by the poem’s language and Frost’s direct, matter-of-fact description of the scene. The poem, if you will, wears its Romanticism lightly – but it is a Romantic poem, even while it is at the same time aware of the difficulties of Romantic awe in a modern, twentieth-century world (the poem was first published in 1923).

Consider that first stanza, as an example. It seems casual, setting the scene much as we might expect a poet to set about doing after the expectations generated by that title, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. Yet it also reminds us that even our most seemingly pure encounter with the realness of nature is one mediated through an equally real world of economic and legal arrangements: these woods are not just ‘nature’, they are owned by someone who has every legal right to consider Frost a trespasser. It’s as if Frost is transgressing merely by stopping to do something as weird as admire the beauty of the natural scene, the snow falling on the trees. Shouldn’t he be hurtling through as quickly as he can? Hasn’t he, like everyone else in the busy workaday world, got somewhere to get to?

Any analysis of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ should attend to the highly unusual and controlled rhyme scheme that Frost uses. For he doesn’t just employ a rhyme scheme: he links each stanza to the next through repeating the same rhymes at different points in the succeeding stanza. So, although we might say ‘the rhyme scheme of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is aaba’ (an unusual rhyme scheme in itself, which Frost borrowed from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), that only goes so far towards acknowledging the intricate way in which the stanzas are linked together. So in the first stanza, we get aaba (know … though … here … snow), but in the second stanza, we get bbcb (queer … near … lake … near); and then, in the third stanza, the ‘lake’ rhyme is shifted to become the ‘main’ rhyme, so we get ccdc (shake … mistake … sweep … flake). In other words, the rhyme in the third line of each stanza becomes the rhyme of the first, second, and fourth lines in the next stanza. This lends the poem a sense of forward momentum, but at the same time, an air of inevitability, even world-weariness: this is not exactly an epiphanic moment, and the only openly affirmative statement (‘The woods are lovely’) is undercut immediately by the inevitable ‘But…’ (‘But I have promises to keep’).

But of course, this cannot go on indefinitely, and in the final stanza, the third line ends with the same rhyme as the other three lines, so we get deep … keep … sleep … sleep. Such repetition-as-rhyme – what I have called homorhyme in a study of modernist poetry (The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem) – conveys a sense of stasis, an inability to move on psychologically. This is obviously at odds with what Frost is saying in this final stanza: namely, that he must get riding again and leave this peaceful, lovely scene behind. As Terry Eagleton brilliantly puts it in an analysis of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in his How to Read a Poem, this is ‘rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.’

There’s also Frost’s use of regular iambic tetrameter throughout the poem, and his choice to end-stop each line: there’s no enjambment, there are no run-on lines, and this lends the poem an air of being a series of simple, pithy statements or observations, rather than a more profound meditation. There’s something inevitable about it: it’s less a Wordsworthian ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ than a more modern acknowledgment that most of us, as W. H. Davies put it in another poem from around this time, ‘have no time to stand and stare’ at nature. All we can do is snatch the odd moment, before someone (or something, even our horse) quietly suggests we might get back to what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, then, is a much more complex poem than it first appears, making a careful analysis of how its language and rhyme pattern work together essential to understanding its meaning.

10 Comments

  1. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” is a weird echo of Beddoes’ poem, “The Phantom Wooer:”

    Young soul, put off your flesh, and come
    With me into the quiet tomb,
    Our bed is lovely, dark, and sweet;
    The earth will swing us, as she goes,
    Beneath our coverlid of snows,
    And the warm leaden sheet.

    Did Frost know it, and unconsciouly remember, or did both poets hit on the same phrase?

    • I wasn’t aware of the Beddoes connection! That is intriguing – and I think the line is too close to Beddoes to be coincidence. Maybe it was an unconscious echo? Beddoes did develop something of a belated following in the 20th century, though I’m not sure how confident we can be that Frost had read him.

  2. When I taught this poem to young children, we made it into a story. About the country doctor making his rounds…he stops to watch the beauty of nature…the horse is used to going to farmhouses (making the rounds)…we decided the darkest evening of the year must be Dec.21. But the doctor cannot tarry due to his obligations. and it will be a long evening doing so.

  3. “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.”
    Recite that line out loud and and as you do so mimic the seesaw fall of a snowflake with one of your hands and you’ll see and feel that Frost has captured the actual motion of a falling snowflake. Second, every late November I’m in the deep woods during the deer hunt and some years snow falls during the dark early morning hours. One of the wonders is that you can hear the snow land on dry leaves and fallen logs: It sounds like f-l-a-k-e. Downy flake, two words that capture the last of a snowflake’s fall. Once again, Frost had captured the sense experience of nature, motion and sound, the wind soughing in the conifers, the snow falling and landing, all animating the natural world that is the scene for one person’s pausing his travels before he must get back to business. Every year I quietly whisper Frost’s lines to the dark November woods.

  4. Covered this one with my sophomores and we were able to have some discussion about euphemisms (sleep) and allusions (woods). It’s a fave for waking up their critical thinking skills.

  5. Singing Frost’s poem to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway” opens the meter for some readers.

  6. Ah. Like singing practically any poem by Emily Dickenson to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”

  7. Ah. Like singing practically any poem by Emily Dickenson to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

  8. A fantastic analysis. I’m a huge fan of Frost’s work. There are so many layers to his writings, and numerous ways his poetry can be interpreted.

  9. Great analysis of the word-sound-music of the poem!

    When I revisited this poem, one I though I knew, a couple of years ago something struck me that I’d missed all these years. We think this is a poem about a beautiful scene of snow falling on a woods, we even remember that Frost has somehow described this in this poem, and from that memory of what we think is present in the poem, that it’s about the enticement of this beautiful peaceful scene.

    Well, the speaker does say he intends to watch the woods fill up with snow, but Frost doesn’t give us any visual concrete images (something he would normally do). Instead the vivid imagery uses sound images (brilliant ones like the snow flake sound line!) And he takes care in this short poem to make something else clear: it snowing, so unlikely a clear, moonlit night, and furthermore he says it’s the darkest evening of the year (some think this means winter solstice, due to the length of night–but he doesn’t say longest, he says darkest).

    So, for the first time, I applied my mid-century rural youth against this scene. The reason he only “thinks” he knows whose woods he’s beside (in my rural area, directions were conventionally given by landowner’s names, “Turn left at the old Johnson place, etc, and so whose woods this is may be significant as landmark) is that he’s lost and it’s dark as only a pre-electricity era clouded over night rural road might be, He can see the dark copse of the woods as otherwise indiscernible shape.

    If the speaker is lost in the dark, the poems ending is saying that we might (should? must?) press on, even though we are lost and don’t know where we are going.

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