By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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’: summary
‘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.
‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’: analysis
To interpret and perceive its deeper meaning, we need to consider the wider context of the poem, and what Frost is saying about the value 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 so many lines: there’s very little enjambment or 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.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. However, as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory: ‘The Gift Outright’. Most critics agree that ‘The Gift Outright’ is a superior poem to the inauguration poem Frost had written, and ‘The Gift Outright’ is now more or less synonymous with Kennedy’s inauguration.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.