A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Stopping By Woods

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.


It's a good time of year to enjoy and reflect on this lovely poem, I think. The snow's still lying all around. And, as we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another, it's a time when many of us look both backwards and forwards, and consider paths taken and not taken, choices made and not made.

I suppose this and The Road Not Taken are two of Frost's most well-known poems, constantly cropping up in anthologies and in lists of people's favourite verses. Both seem artlessly simple, yet are crafted with enormous skill. Both contain deeper mysteries and have half-hidden undercurrents. Both are about the choices we make in life.

In Stepping By Woods we are confronted with a choice: to succumb to the deep, dark, alluring wild wood or to carry on with the journey on which we have embarked. There's no doubt what the horse wants to do. He gives his harness bells a shake as if to say: onwards! There's still a long way to go! To which reminder the rider responds, shakes off his reverie, and realises there are still many miles to cover, much life still to pursue.

There's always a choice we have to make: between society's safe village and the individual's lonely, risky journey; between the snowy track and the dark, dangerous but strangely enticing forest; between, if you like, the rational and the irrational, between life and death. But actually it's not clear if the choice is as clear-cut as that, if it's really a straightforward choice between one path or the other.

This ambiguity, this mystery, lies at the poem's heart, I believe. What a wealth of meaning in such a deceptively simple poem!


Ruth said...

What a poem it is. My husband teaches it to his fourth graders every year, and they memorize it. Then they sing it to a pretty tune in the Christmas concert.

I can't start winter without the phrase repeating itself over and over: to watch his woods fill up with snow.

I agree about the mystery. The best line, I think, is the first of the last stanza.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it's a miracle of a poem. You can physically feel the hushed and muffled atmosphere. And the repetition of the last two lines is somnolent, and haunting.

Bonnie said...

Love your reflections on this oft-recited poem, Robert. It can be applied so beautifully to many aspects of life - as you have done.

I have always wondered about the 'promises'. Were they his, his culture's, his family's, his religion's ... ? Were the promises burdensome obligations or heartfelt vows he wanted to keep? Whatever they were, he makes the choice to forge on to keep them rather than succombing to the comfort of the dark, the deep and/or sleep.

It is, as you say, haunting - because there is the aspect of the lure of the dark and deep, sleep, ... death. And in spite of the temptation he says "But..." and chooses to go on ... (life and its responsibilities?).

The Solitary Walker said...

I appreciate so much your comments on this wonderful poem, Bonnie. You've highlighted beautifully another part of it which is so open-ended.

Frost makes the irrational/the dark/the unknown so attractive. Would he go on without the harness bells' admonition and/or the 'promises to keep'? Ultimately we all individually have to decide the way forward. But, as you say, that 'but' is significant.

George said...

It's wonderful to hear your take, Robert, on "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Each stanza is lovely in its own right, but the heart of the poem appears to be in the last four lines. To me, this has always seemed to be a meditation on life and death, an acknowledgment that there must be something lovely and peaceful after our temporal life, accompanied by a recognition that life is meaningful and should be pursued with both purpose and hope.

With respect to Bonnie's comments, I personally believe that the "promises" are ones that Frost made to himself, promises to continue moving forward through the undeniable ambiguity and mystery of life. A gritty New Englander, Frost would saluted Tennyson's advice "to seek, to find, but not to yield."

Reading this poem in the context of other poems, such as "The Road Not Taken," is also interesting, and with respect to the ambiguity to which you refer, I am reminded of a wonderful little couplet by Frost:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle and knows.

The Solitary Walker said...

George - that's such a tremendously insightful contribution to our discussion of Frost's poem. I instinctively feel you are right about those 'promises' - but what's great about the poem is that all those other possibilities can resonate too. With regard to 'The Road Not Taken', this poem is also much more ambiguous than it might at first appear.

Friko said...

You and this discussion have made an old favourite come very much alive for me.
George and you, Robert, have said it, there is no need for me to repeat anything.
Suffice it to say that no matter how many times I read Frost, I am always struck by the seeming simplicity which yet hides such marvellous depths.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your contribution, Friko. I'm inspired by all these responses to highlight a few more of my favourite poems in subsequent posts.

Tramp said...

Sorry we are late, we were watching the snow in the forest.
You have hosted a thought proving and informative discussion here.
We identify with the dilemma in here of when to stop and linger and when to press on.
...Lady and Tramp

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks your comment, Tramp. I think it's great when a blogpost can provoke a mini-discussion like this. We can all learn so much from each other. And it's nice to interact with symapthetic, like-minded people of similar tastes and tendencies.