Sunday, September 12, 2021

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost in 1941

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The American poet Robert Frost spent some years as a (not very successful) "gentleman farmer," and filled his poems with imagery of rural life and nature, often using the colloquial speech of country people.

He considered the 1922 poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," a poem about the winter solstice, to be his "best bid for remembrance."

Here's the poem:

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.


Here's a paraphrase:

I think I know who owns these woods.
But he lives in the village,
so he won't see me stopping here
to watch the snow fall in his woods.

I imagine my horse thinks it's strange
to stop here in "the middle of nowhere"
with the woods on one side of us and the frozen lake on the other
on the night of the winter solstice.

He shakes the bells on his harness
like he thinks something is wrong.
The only other thing I hear
is a gentle wind and the snow falling softly.

The woods are beautiful. They're dark and deep.
But I can't stop any longer, there are things I have to do,
And I have far to go before reaching home.
VERY far to go before reaching home.


Rhyme scheme

The poem is often praised for its rhyme scheme, the arrangement of end words with the same or similar sounds.

In standard poetry studies, we designate the word at the end of the first line "A." In this poem, that would be "know” and the words that sound like it, including "though" and "snow." "B," then, is "here," which shows up as line 3 of the first stanza, and lines 1, 2, and 4 of the second. And so it goes. "C" rhymes with "lake," and "D" with "sweep." The scheme, then, is


Note that Frost breaks his own pattern in the fourth stanza--all "D"! This emphasizes the repetitiveness of the long journey ahead.


The Winter Solstice: This is the day in the northern hemisphere, around December 20 or 21, when the sun is at its furthest southern point. It has literally the shortest amount of daylight and the longest night of the year. Frost expresses this romantically as the "darkest" night. (I'm writing this at the solstice in 2020!)

The very word "solstice" has two parts: sol means "sun," and -stice means "stopped" or "stationary." The sun itself appears to stop its southward journey before coming north again. In the same way, the speaker in the poem stops and then goes on. There is other rich winter imagery here, but this is the key idea.

Civilization ("the village") vs nature: By comparing his dark place in the woods with the landowner's "house... in the village...," the speaker sets up a contrast between town life and "civilization" versus the wild and slightly scary atmosphere of the woods. He leaves it to us to decide which is preferable.

Enjoyment of beauty vs responsibility: Again, a contrast is set between the "lovely, dark and deep" beauty of the woods "fill[ing] up with snow" and his responsibilities, his "promises to keep."

Some Words to Know (for English Language Learners):

  • village: a small community or group of houses in a rural area
  • queer: strange; odd; different
  • harness: metal and leather used on a horse or other animal's head to guide it
  • downy: fluffy; soft, like the "down" (soft under-feathers) of a bird, sometimes used for stuffing pillows
  • flake: small piece of something; in this case, snowflakes.


Vocabulary Exercise

Place the correct word in each sentence; change the form of the word if necessary. Answers in the first comment below.

  1. After he got a sunburn at the beach, the skin on his nose began to come off in ----- .
  2. Standing close to the edge of a balcony gives many people a ----- feeling in their stomachs.
  3. After he moved out of his -----, he never got used to life in the big city.
  4. A horse cannot be guided properly if its ----- is broken.
  5. She enjoyed petting the baby duck's ----- feathers.

Questions for Writing or Discussion

  1. What words does the poet use to indicate that he's only imagining the horse's thoughts?
  2. Which do you prefer, "civilization" or "nature"? Should we try to strike a balance between the two? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. What is the importance of "taking a break," of gaining a respite from our responsibilities?

Creative Projects

  1. Re-write the poem as a short-short story.
  2. How do you picture the narrator? Young or old? Male or female? Sophisticated or not? Once you have answered these questions, render her/him in a drawing or painting. Try to portray what we know and what you guess about his/her character.
  3. Create and perform an imaginative dialogue between the narrator and the horse.

Share your writing, artwork, or performance with me! And let me know if I can share it with others. Use the contact form at the bottom of the page, or post it as a comment here or on one of my social media accounts.


1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Vocabulary Exercise: 1. flakes; 2. queer; 3. village; 4. harness; 5. downy