Richard Gray: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The duality of the narrator's response to the woods is caught in the contrast between the relaxed, conversational idiom of the first three lines (note the gentle emphasis given to ‘think', the briskly colloquial ‘though') and the dream-like descriptive detail and hypnotic verbal music ('watch . . . woods', 'his . . . fill . . . with') of the last. Clearing and wilderness, law and freedom, civilisation and nature, fact and dream: these oppositions reverberate throughout American writing. And they are registered here in Frost's own quietly ironic contrast between the road along which the narrator travels, connecting marketplace to marketplace, promoting community and culture - and the white silence of the woods, where none of the ordinary limitations of the world seem to apply. In a minor key, they are caught also in the implicit comparison between the owner of these woods, who apparently regards them as a purely financial investment (he lives in the village) and the narrator who sees them, at least potentially, as a spiritual one.

This contrast between what might be termed, rather reductively perhaps, 'realistic' and 'romantic' attitudes is then sustained through the next two stanzas: the commonsensical response is now playfully attributed to the narrator's horse which, like any practical being, wants to get on down the road to food and shelter. The narrator himself, however, continues to be lured by the mysteries of the forest just as the Romantic poets were lured by the mysteries of otherness, sleep and death. And, as before, the contrast is a product of tone and texture as much as dramatic intimation: the poem communicates its debate in how it says things as much as in what it says. So, the harsh gutturals and abrupt movement of lines like, 'He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake', give verbal shape to the matter-of-fact attitude attributed to the horse, just as the soothing sibilants and gently rocking motion of the lines that follow this ('The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake') offer a tonal equivalent of the strange, seductive world into which the narrator is tempted to move. 'Everything that is written', Frost once said, 'is as good as it is dramatic'; and in a poem like this the words of the poem become actors in the drama.

The final stanza of 'Stopping by Woods' does not resolve its tensions; on the contrary, it rehearses them in particularly memorable language.

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.

Having paid tribute to the dangerous seductiveness of the woods, the narrator seems to be trying to shake himself back into commonsense reality by invoking his 'promises' or mundane responsibilities. The last line is repeated, however; and while at first it seems little more than a literal reference to the journey he has to complete (and so a way of telling himself to continue on down the road), the repetition gives it particular resonance. This could, after all, be a metaphorical reference to the brief span of human life and the compulsion this puts the narrator under to take risks and explore the truth while he can. Only a few 'miles' to go before 'I sleep' in death: such a chilling memento mori perhaps justifies stopping by the woods in the first place and considering the spiritual quest implicit in the vision they offer. Perhaps: the point is that neither narrator nor reader can be sure. 'The poem is the act of having the thought', Frost insisted; it is process rather than product, it invites us to share in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not simply to look at their results. So the most a piece like 'Stopping by Woods' will offer - and it is a great deal - is an imaginative resolution of its tensions: the sense that its conflicts and irresolutions have been given appropriate dramatic expression, revelation and equipoise.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK Limited.

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Criticism Overview
Title Richard Gray: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Gray Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
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