George Montiero: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The "dark forest" in the tradition of "The Choice of the Two Paths" and the "forest dark" of Longfellow's translation of the Inferno also foreshadow the imagery of the famous Frost poem published in New Hampshire (1923), the last stanza of which begins: "The woods are lovely; dark and deep." In spurning the word "forest" for "woods," a term that is perhaps more appropriate for New England, Frost was, whether he knew it or not, following Charles Eliot Norton, whose translation of the Inferno reads "dark wood" and who glosses the opening of Dante's poem: "The dark wood is the forest of the world of sense, 'the erroneous wood of this life' . . . , that is, the wood in which man loses his way." In "the darkest evening of the year," the New England poet finds himself standing before a scene he finds attractive enough to make him linger. Frost's poem employs, significantly; the present tense. Dante's poem (through Longfellow) employs the past tense. It is as if Frost were casually remembering some familiar engraving that hung on a schoolroom wall in Lawrence as he was growing up in the 1880s, and the poet slides into the picture. He enters, so to speak, the mind of the figure who speaks the poem, a figure whose body is slowly turned into the scene, head fully away from the foreground, bulking small, holding the reins steadily and loosely. The horse and team are planted, though poised to move. And so begins the poet's dramatization of this rural and parochial tableau. "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." And then, having entered the human being, he witnesses the natural drift of that human being's thoughts to the brain of his "little horse," who thinks it "queer" that the rider has decided to stop here. And then, in an equally easy transition, the teamster returns to himself, remembering that he has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. Duties, responsibilities—many must have them, we think, as echolalia closes the poem, all other thoughts already turning away from the illustration on the schoolroom wall. And even as the "little horse" has been rid of the man's intrusion, so too must the rider's mind be freed of the poet's incursion. The poet's last line resonates, dismissing the reader from his, the poet's, dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations, and returning to the poet's inside reading of the still-"fe drama that goes on forever within its frame hanging on the classroom wall.

The ways in which Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" converses with Longfellow's translation of Dante are evident from other shared echoes and images. The Inferno continues:

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,     So full was I of slumber at the moment     In which I had abandoned the true way. But after I had reached a mountain's foot,     At that point where the valley terminated,     Which had with consternation pierced my heart, Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,     Vested already with that planet's rays     Which leadeth others right by every road. Then was the fear a little quieted     That in my heart's lake had endured throughout     That night, which I had passed so piteously.

What Frost "fetched" here (as in "The Road Not Taken") were the motifs of risk and decision characterizing both "The Choice of the Two Paths" and Dante's Inferno.

"The Draft Horse," a poem published at the end of Frost's life in his final volume, In the Clearing (1962), reminds us curiously of Frost's anecdote in 1912 about recognizing "another" self and not encountering that self and also of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In addition it is reminiscent of "The Road Not Taken." In each case—anecdote, autumnal poem, and winter poem—the poet must make a choice. Will he "go forward to the touch," or will he "stand still in wonderment and let him pass by" in the anecdote? He will choose the "road less traveled by" (but he will leave the other for a later passing, though he probably will not return to it). He will not succumb to the aesthetic (and perhaps psychological) attractions of the woods, which are "lovely, dark and deep," but will go forth to keep his promises—of both kinds (as Frost explained): "those that I myself make for myself and those that my ancestors made for me, known as the social contract."

With a lantern that wouldn’t burn In too frail a buggy we drove Behind too heavy a horse Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees And took our horse by the head And reaching back to his ribs Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down With a crack of a broken shaft. And the night drew through the trees In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair That ever accepted fate And the least disposed to ascribe Any more than we had to hate,

We assumed that the man himself Or someone he had to obey Wanted us to get down And walk the rest of the way.

The "little horse" of the earlier poem is replaced by "the too-heavy horse" of the later one. The "woods" have now been replaced by "a pitch-dark limitless grove." The hint in "grove" is one of sacrificial rites and ordered violence. The "sweep of easy wind and downy flake" of "Stopping by Woods" is echoed more ominously in "The Draft Horse" in that after "the ponderous beast went down" "the night drew through the trees / In one long invidious draft." The man was alone; here he is part of an "unquestioning pair." "Stopping by Woods" was given in the first person. "The Draft Horse," like the beginning of the Inferno, takes place in the past. There is resolution in the former—even if it evinces some fatigue; in the latter there is resignation. At the time of the poem and in an earlier day, the loss of a man's horse may be as great a loss as that of one's life—probably because its loss would often lead to the death of the horse's owner. And for the poet the assassination has no rhyme or reason that he will discern. He knows only that the man "came out of the trees" (compare the intruders in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" or the neighbor in "Mending Wall" who resembles "an old-stone savage armed"). Insofar as the poet knows, this act involves motiveless malevolence less than unmalevolent motive—if there is a motive. In the Inferno, the beast that threatens the poet's pathway gives way to the poet—"Not man; man once I was," he says—who will guide him. Frost's couple have the misfortune to encounter not a guide but an assassin. "A man feared that he might find an assassin; / Another that he might find a victim," wrote Stephen Crane. "One was more wise than the other." It is not too far-fetched, I think, to see the equanimity of the poet at the end of "The Draft Horse" as a response to the anecdote, many years earlier, when the poet avoided meeting his "other" self, thereby committing the "fatal omission" of not trying to find out what "purpose . . . if we could but have made out" there was in the near-encounter. It is chilling to read the poem against its Frostian antecedents. Yet, as Keeper prefers in A Masque of Mercy (1947)—in words out of another context which might better fit the romantic poet of "The Wood- Pile"—"I say I'd rather be lost in the woods / Than found in church."

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

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Criticism Overview
Title George Montiero: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George Montiero Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance
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