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!