Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening: Robert Frost

EXPLANATIONS:

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the lakes and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year. (l 5-8)

                   These lines are taken from the second stanza of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’. Here the poet personifies the horse, as if it is expressing the poet’s inner voice.

The expression ‘my little horse’ indicates the intimacy between the poet-traveller and his horse. Stopping by the mysterious and deserted woods without any logical reason is strange, so the poet thinks that his horse must be thinking the same. The personification of the horse helps to project the poet’s inner confusion. The reference to farmhouses and the poet bonding with his horse is an indication of the daily rustic life of an ordinary man. He has wandered into the dark woods and frozen lake on the ‘darkest evening of the year’. This may refer to the winter solstice (December 21), which is thought have the shortest day and longest night of the year.  The whole stanza gives a sense of isolation, loneliness and death-like feeling, a sort of dilemma that the poet himself is experiencing.

Therefore, the horse acts as an inner voice that questions his insecurity.

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 (l 13-16)

 

                  These lines are taken from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’. In this final stanza the poet comes to a resolution about his dilemma and decides to carry on with his life.

The entire stanza is like a lullaby, as if the poet is preparing himself for a long sleep, which usually means death. He describes the woods as ‘lovely’ but also ‘dark and ‘deep’- the contrast shows that he is attracted to it because it is peaceful, but also because it might allow him to rest forever. He seems to be tired of responsibility and life, but is reminded of the ‘promises to keep’. Most people go through the same spiritual crisis in some point in their lives, when life becomes monotonous and you begin to wander why you should go on living. The poet questions himself in the same way, and realizes that even though he is tempted to sleep and give up everything, there is still a lot of work left for him to do. The haunting lines ‘And miles to go before I sleep’ has a positive meaning. It tells the reader that there is a long way to go and much to do in life. You might lose your way sometimes and want to rest, but to forget your responsibilities leads to a meaningless life.

So, the poet continues his journey through the woods and towards his destiny.

QUESTION:

  1. Discuss Frost’s use of symbols in ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’.

Robert Frost is known as a great modern American poet. His poems are praised for their simplicity and colloquial language which blends speech and song to form lyrics which sound natural. His attitudes towards the physical world and human nature is expressed through his haunting symbols in ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’.

The woods in this poem represent the unconscious mind which is drawn towards death. The entire poem is like a lullaby, as if the poet is preparing himself for a long sleep, which usually means death. He describes the woods as ‘lovely’ but also ‘dark and ‘deep’- the contrast shows that he is attracted to it because it is peaceful, but also because it might allow him to rest forever. He is hypnotized by their tranquility. He seems to be tired of responsibility and life, but is reminded of the ‘promises to keep’. Most people go through the same spiritual crisis in some point in their lives, when life becomes monotonous and you begin to wander why you should go on living. Whenever we see woods in literature, we almost automatically see them in contrast to civilization. In lines 1, 4, 7, 13- some interpret the woods as an extended metaphor for a death-wish.

The poet is strongly attracted to the world of nature. He walks with his horse between a frozen lake and the edge of the woods, while the snows falls gently all around him. The ideas of the village, of a farmhouse, or of the promises he must keep are forgotten, as the cold beauty of the world around him. There’s something very lulling about the “easy wind and downy flake”, and we get the sense that the natural world is pretty compelling. Nature is powerful in this poem. The poet-traveler finds comfort in nature rather than civilization. In Line 11, we can almost hear the sound of the wind in the alliteration of “sound’s the sweep.” While the fact that the woods are “lovely, dark and deep” make the woods sound mysterious and irresistible.

In line 2, the “village” can be interpreted as a symbol for society and civilization. The woods are far away and represent the world of nature. Tired of the mundane work in life, the poet is drawn to the peaceful  vision of nature. The expression ‘my little horse’ indicates the intimacy between the poet-traveller and his horse. Stopping by the mysterious and deserted woods without any logical reason is strange, so the poet thinks that his horse must be thinking the same. The personification of the horse helps to project the poet’s inner confusion. The reference to farmhouses and the poet bonding with his horse is an indication of the daily rustic life of an ordinary man. He has wandered into the dark woods and frozen lake on the ‘darkest evening of the year’. This may refer to the winter solstice (December 21), which is thought have the shortest day and longest night of the year.  The whole stanza gives a sense of isolation, loneliness and death-like feeling, a sort of dilemma that the poet himself is experiencing.

Finally, the most important symbol in the poem is “sleep” which represents death. The poet is tired and wants to sleep in the woods, but the horse reminds him of his duties and responsibilities back home. Death is tempting to anyone who is tired of life. Yet, the poet realizes he still has “miles to go before I sleep.” So, the poet chooses life over death and duties over escapism.

Therefore, Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’, is full of symbols that talk of life and death through the simple journey of the poet wandering in the woods

  1. Comment on Frost’s philosophy of life as expressed in ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’.

Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is a poem about something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. The title, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ identifies the general image that it is a poem of recollection and automatically interests the reader at the strangeness of stopping by the woods on a snowy evening. His philosophy of life is about finding the meaning of life in the modern world of death and destruction.

The word “woods” is mentioned four times in the poem, while “I” is mentioned five times. These two realities, the subjective and the objective, are merged over the course of the poem. While the speaker focuses almost exclusively on the physical fact of his surroundings, he is at the same time articulating his own mental landscape, which seems to want “to fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget.” There is in the end the uncertainty in choosing between his death impulse and his desire to continue on the road of life. The poet has his solitary vision- whether he stays or goes, the woods will go with him and the reader, who are now well-acquainted with the coming night.

Robert Frost personal life was a tragic one. His father died of tuberculosis when he was 11, leaving the family poor and destitute, and his mother later died of cancer. His younger sister was committed to a mental hospital and died there nine years later, and he had to send his daughter to an asylum as well. Out of his six children, only two outlived him (a son committed suicide, a son and daughter from disease and another daughter from SIDS), and his wife died of cancer and heart failure.
That leads is in many ways the subject of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It is a philosophical reflection on life, a questioning of the reason for our existence- civilization versus nature and life versus death. How despite all the disappointments and tragedies in life, people decide to move on. Material wealth and spiritual uplift are contradictory things, but the poet philosophically talks about both.

As its opening words suggest, “Whose woods these are I think I know” it is a poem concerned with ownership and also with someone who cannot be or does not choose to be very emphatic even about owning himself. He does not want or expect to be seen. And his reason, aside from being on someone else’s property, is that it would apparently be out of character for him to be there, communing alone with a woods fast filling up with snow. He is, after all, a man of business who has promised his time, his future to other people. It is no wonder that his little horse would think his actions “queer” or that he would let the horse, instead of himself, take responsibility for the judgment. He is in danger of losing himself; and his language by the end of the third stanza begins to carry hints of a seductive luxuriousness unlike anything preceding it, “Easy wind and downy flake . . . lovely, dark and deep.” Even before the somnolent repetition of the last two lines, he is ready to drop off. His opening question about who owns the woods becomes, because of the very absence from the poem of any man “too exactly himself,” a question of whether the woods are to “own” him. With the drowsy repetitiousness of rhymes in the last stanza, four in a row, it takes some optimism to be sure that he will be able to keep his promises.

Therefore, Frost’s philosophy of life is about the existential crisis of modern life. This is not a cheerful poem about optimism. The narrator and rider of this poem is not smiling or daydreaming. It is an epiphany about stoic duty. The woods symbolize death, and indirectly suicide. It would be very easy for the rider to simply give in and embrace death, which seems far more welcome than the responsibilities he is bound to.

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