Karen L. Kilcup: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The poem as a whole, of course, encodes many of the tensions between popular and elite poetry. For example, it appears in an anthology of children's writing alongside Amy Lowell's "Crescent Moon," Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," and Edward Lear's "Owl and the Pussy-Cat." Pritchard situates it among a number of poems that "have ... repelled or embarrassed more highbrow sensibilities," which suggests the question: "haven't these poems ['The Pasture,' 'Stopping by Woods...,' 'Birches,' 'Mending Wall'] been so much exclaimed over by people whose poetic taste is dubious or hardly existent, that on these grounds alone Frost is to be distrusted?" The views represented--and the representations of the poem itself, affiliated with the work of Dickinson, Longfellow, Dante, and the Romantics--range from emphasis on its gentility to its modernist ambiguity. Nevertheless, more than one critic underscores its threat to individualism, its "dangerous prospect of boundarilessness," which suggests the masculine conception of poetic selfhood with which the poem is commonly framed.

. . . .

Seasons were a conventional means to illustrate feelings, as in Helen Hunt Jackson's "'Down to Sleep'":

November woods are bare and still;

November days are clear and bright;

Each noon burns up the morning's chill;

The morning's snow is gone by night;

Each day my steps grow slow, grow light,

As through the woods I reverent creep,

Watching all things lie "down to sleep."

I never knew before what beds,

Fragrant to smell, and soft to touch,

The forest sifts and shapes and spreads;

I never knew before how much

Of human sound there is in such

Low tones as through the forest sweep

When all wild things lie "down to sleep."

Each day I find new coverlids

Tucked in and more sweet eyes shut tight;

Sometimes the viewless mother bids

Her ferns kneel down full in my sight;

I hear their chorus of "good night,"

And half I smile, and half I weep,

Listening while they lie "down to sleep."

November woods are bare and still;

November days are bright and good;

Life's noon burns up life's morning chill;

Life's night rests feet which long have stood;

Some warm soft bed, in field or wood,

The mother will not fail to keep,

Where we can "lay us down to sleep."

Jackson's poem relies on associations with the mother as well as the seasonal metaphor to make its point, making explicit what Frost's intimates: his speaker's desire to merge with the lovely, snow-clad woods suggests a desire to merge with the mother (Mother Nature) as strong as Jackson's. Having removed the traces of religiosity encoded in the refrain "down to sleep," a child's nighttime prayer to God, Frost's speaker nevertheless evinces his prayerful attitude in "the woods are lovely, dark and deep," as well is in the hymnlike regularity of the stanzas. And, in the affectionate reference to "my little horse" reminiscent of the cow-calf image in "The Pasture," he suggests the connection between human and animal parallel to Jackson's explicit observation: "I never knew before how much / Of human sound there is in such / Low tones as through the forest sweep / When all wild things lie 'down to sleep.'" "Sweep," of course, recurs in Frost's quiet poem: "The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." Though probably accidental, Frost's echoing of the sweep-sleep rhyme indicates some of the emotional resonances and connections, especially with "weep," itself embedded in "sweep," that are explicit in Jackson. Finally, Jackson's narrator acknowledges only slightly more directly the movement toward age and death that Frost's suggests: "Each day my steps grow slow, grow light / As through the woods I reverent creep." The subjectivity of both Frost's and Jackson's poems is simultaneously individual and representative, suggesting that "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a feminine poem with close connections to its popular antecedents.

Once again we can trace the emotional resonance of Frost's poem back to the concrete situation that helped engender it. Shortly before Christmas of 1905, Frost had made an unsuccessful trip into town to sell eggs in order to raise money for his children's Christmas presents. "Alone in the driving snow, the memory of his years of hopeful but frustrated struggle welled up, and he let his long-pent feelings out in tears." The intensity of this tearful moment translates into the affective content that permeates but never overwhelms "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The fact that the poem would be written seventeen years after the moment that it reflected testifies to the deep suffering that this experience engendered; too painful to be dwelt upon, it would be only with time and distance that the emotions of that awful moment could be balanced, in a "momentary stay against confusion," by the comforting restraint of formal expression.

"Stopping by Woods" provides a doorway into an understanding of the poet's great popularity with "ordinary" readers. Jarrell observes, "ordinary readers think Frost the greatest poet alive, and love some of his best poems almost as much as they love some of his worst ones. He seems to them a sensible, tender, humorous poet who knows all about trees and farms and folks in New England." This view crashes with that of "intellectuals," who have "neglected or depreciated" him: "the reader of Eliot or Auden usually dismisses Frost as something inconsequentially good that he knew all about long ago."

From Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998: 45, 46-47.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Karen L. Kilcup: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Karen L. Kilcup Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media