Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening : Summary Analysis

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Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

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.

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.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of the most moving of Frost's lyrics. It moves us as unobtrusively as it conveys to us the profundity of its thought. "The lyric", says William O Connor, "like Milton's sonnet On His Blindness and Arnold's Dover Beach, seems to have established itself permanently in anthologies and textbooks of poetry. It is one of Frost's best-known poems, and we might discover, if we had the means, that it is one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century." It is this lyric that appealed to the late Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and guided and inspired him to be constantly on the move, adhering to his duties. Perhaps this lyric and especially the last stanza, of the poem contributed a large share in the making of Nehruji, the colossus of a man-who was essentially human and served humanity till his last moment of life.

      It is a poem of superb craftsmanship. On a surface reading, it appears to be simple, descriptive record of close minute observation, a series ot homely but vivid pictures. On a critical scrutiny of the poem, layers of meanings unfold before us. The poem achieves its climax of responsibility in the last stanza - the promises to be kept, the obligations to be fulfilled. Finding difficult words in the poem is a Herculean task because the poet has used the simplest vocabulary, that comes handy even to the common reader. Almost all the words used in the poem are monosyllabic or bisyllabic. The over simplicity is only a contrasting encrustation for the immense profundity of thought that it contains. This is a deeply meditative poem. The poem is a rare blend of homely music and significance.

      According to Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening contains "all I ever knew." Of the swift spurt which delivered the poem he says: "Easy does it." (He indicates a similar reaction to Dust of Snow. He first called it The Favor because it was one of those things that had come to him as a favour, a favour from nature. These Nature-favours served as incepter of poems.) Stopping by Woods is, he says, "a series of almost reckless commitments. I feel good in having guarded it so. It is my heavy-duty poem to be examined for rime or pairs".

Development of Thought:

      A single reading of the poem does not make the reader suspicious of any profound, esoteric implications. This simple lyric comes home to the reader in a single reading. To all appearances, it is nothing more than a simple anecdote relating that one evening the poet pauses along a lonely dark country road to watch snow fall in the woods. To the poet the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and as he sits in his horse-driven carriage, gazing into the white, soft silence, he is tempted to prolong his stay there, allowing his mind to be numbed and hypnotised by the Charming woods. "His consciousness seems to be on the verge of freeing itself from ordinary life, as if it were about to dissolve in the shadowy blank but his mind holds back from this. He remembers that his journey has a purpose. He has promises to keep and many miles to go before he can yield to the dream-like release which the woods seem to offer".

      The crux, the subject, of the poem is this moving personal experience and has been rendered exquisitely. But, definitely the poet intends a good deal more. The poem is not a more record of some thing that once happened to the poet. Through personal experience, the poet expresses a universal conflict felt by every sensitive individual. The demands of practical life, certain obligations on part of an individual and the almost universal latent desire in everyone to escape into a land of day-dreaming and fond reveries, are constantly pulling an individual apart. The poet constantly directs the reader's vision in such a manner that he begins to view the poet's experience as a universal experience. The immense possibilities of meaning becomes prominent in the last lines of the poem that are poignant in their simplicity and the ease and grace with which they convey the reality. The poet will have to fulfil some duties, performing a few miscellaneous tasks on the farms before he goes off to sleep. But miles and sleep and promises stretch out beyond the limitations of single meanings. They bring us into the realm of implications and imply 'the long journey of life', 'death' and 'obligations' respectively.

      Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a dramatic lyric which breaks into the middle of an incident. At the outset of the poem, the reader finds that the stage is all set - in fact the curtain is already going up on a little incident approaching the zenith of an imagined or real experience. The experience described in the poem really took place in physical terms or perhaps it is only an experience in the mind of the poet in terms of plausibility. The narrator or the speaker in the poem is a rural traveller. In a short soliloquy he deserves the circumstances under which he has been compelled to stop his horse-drawn sleigh and stay back in the woods. The speaker has stopped in the woods despite being terribly late to enjoy the fascinating beauty of the rare scene of soft white snow-flakes falling against the backdrop of the shadowy dark trees. The speaker knows very well what he is doing. He is not hypnotised or mesmerised. He is stopping there, fuly aware of all possible implications. But the reasons for not stopping in the woods are sheer common sense reasons which even the horse seems to be aware of. Duties and distances keep the speaker constantly on his vigil and keep him moving ahead. The speaker is constantly haunted by the phantoms of duties which must be fulfilled before finally going to rest. The poem is thus brought to its end, as though to its natural fruition through images and statements that are as clear as the snow that is enveloping the environment. The poem also embodies a slightly tragic implication which comes out in lines like the darkest evening of the year. Just as there is always a ray of light in the heart of darkness, there is, to the poet, a revelation of beauty to which we are generally blind. Cold and darkness are the environment or breeding ground for an experience, the warmth and enlightenment of which linger on in the poet's mind long after the experience s no more. A trivial experience leads the poet to a profound realisation. The poet does not want to leave the woods - perhaps he wants to retain with him, in this dark moment, a great discovery. No amount of rational logic can account for the will to stay on in the woods. But the rational part of the speaker supersedes the instinct. He realises that life is always being pulled by divergent forces. There are attractions and temptations but they have to be resisted because there are other things to be done. There are commitments and obligations that have to be taken care of and one cannot afford to be swept away by emotion. And then there is the final commitment of the human lot - death. Before fulfilling this commitment one has to travel strenuous miles.

Critical Appreciation:

      This poem is one of those rare works of art that build up a bulwark of criticism around themselves. It is a short poem suffused with meaning, open to varied interpretations.

      The Interpretation By Leonard Unger and Willaim Van O' Conner: The woods are unusually lovely but the speaker must ultimately be about his business and responsibilities. There are further implications in this (last) stanza. The woods are symbolic of beauty in general, of aesthetic value. This symbolism is enforced by the word "but" in the second line. If it were not for the promises and miles, what would the speaker do. The woods equate death with an exclusive commitment to beauty. The speaker feels the strong urge to escape into loveliness, into the peacefulness of death, but he also acknowledges the existence of other urges and values too. He is committed to life in all its complexities and diversity, and he wants to go on living to fulfill that commitment for death will come in time. The repetition of the last line successfully closes the formal pattern of the poem, emphasizing the symbolic function of the statement, too.

The Appeal of The Poem:

      The reasons, the sources of the universal appeal of the poem, like that of Frost's work in general are not difficult to account for. In a simple language and a style that comes home easily to the reader, he conveys thoughts and ideas that are too deep for philosophical dissertations. The experience Frost describes is of such quality that the common man can easily imagine.

The Poem is Loaded with Meaning:

      The small bits of description in the poem are not there just for the sake of it - they unite to form a coherent pattern connoting a much deeper meaning than what appears at a cursory glance at the poem. John F. Lynen feels that the poem is an invitation to a loved one to glimpse the delicate beauty of the nature. The person invited has to be initiated into the proper perspective in which to look at things - the poet's way.

Symbolism in The Poem:

      The poet has employed the strongest tool in the hands of a great artist, symbolism, to convey profound thoughts. J. McBride Dabbes makes a very clear and penetrating study of symbolism in the poem. "Frost's most perfect lyric perhaps. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, is the final expression of this modern temper. On first reading it, I valued it for excellent fusion of freshness and richness, and its complete picture of the humorous and shy poet, the pony giving his harness bells a shake, and The darkest evening of the year'. Now I value it for this, and for something else. For the portrait of Robert Frost himself, with those ? imitable last lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep...

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a small poem of four stanzas. But within its small radius it gives rise to a rich evocative association of symbols. The lines

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...

      Suggest a great deal more than what is literally conveyed. The ending stanza,

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,

      Is an inspiring message for all those who are engaged in social or national service. In this poem a thrilling personal experience has been presented exquisitely. This personal experience symbolically represents the universal experience. The more we ponder over the significance of the words used in the poem the more we begin to realise that a great deal beyond tn literal meaning has been intended by the poet. In everyday life we are faced with umpteen problems. In a moment of frustration we keenly desire to leave off everything and take shelter in dreamland where we create for ourselves a happy environment free from all worries. We are likely to forget our duty and obligations warranted by it. The words promises to keep, 'sleep and miles to go signify all these ideas. Although we indulge in day-dreaming, we do realise our responsibilities. Thus as Lynen points out, Frost's symbols define and explain one another.

      The snow, the frozen lake and sleep are linked through their evocative effect. The silent snow covering the woods is suggestive of the mantle of oblivion caused by death in this world of mortality. The frozen lake is obviously associated with cold and insensitivity of death, and sleep evokes the idea of eternal sleep. Death is associated with the feeling of bafflement of man - the traveller in his life - the pathway through woods. Promises suggest the pull of action and duty. In totality the poem symbolises the human predicament. The poet may like to enjoy the woods but the promises he has to keep prevent him from indulging himself. If the poet were to sleep, only after keeping the promises, his sleep - i.e. the reward is justified. If he were to sleep before keeping the promises it would be a pleasure he has not earned by virtue of his performance of his duties. The wood thus symbolises an indulgence in sensual pleasures thanks to the darkness of ignorance in the inner self of a man blinded by self seeking.

The Dramatic Element in the Poem:

      The fine lyric is essentially dramatic in character and the dramatic element has been excellently brought out by Lawrance Thompson. He says that there is a drama-in-miniature revealed with setting and light and actors complete.

Paraphrase:

      Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is perhaps the most well-known poem by Robert Frost; in fact, this is the single poem through which Frost is known to many. This poem is suggestive of profound thoughts and Utterances about human life and death, the great leveller.

      Stanza 1. Line. 1-4: The poem opens with the speaker standing in the woods. The scene and means employed to portray it, call our attention. Across the road from the woods that the speaker is passing through, there is a frozen lake. Houses are beyond the vision of the speaker and the quietness marks the scene. It is snowing heavily and the speaker can hear the soft and almost inaudible sound made by wind and the soft snow-flakes falling in the woods.

      The dark woods perhaps symbolise the dark, impenetrable, unfathomable mystery of life, and snow as usual symbolises the cold destructive force called death. It is as though the speaker was literally caught in the woods on a snowy evening and on another level, he is caught in a moment of time, arresting all his powers to find an answer to the mystery of life. The only plausible answer, the ultimate reality, to him as to philosophers and thinkers of all time is Death - an absolute power, of which man has a strange fascination and an inexplicable horror at the same time.

      John Ciardi makes illuminating comments on the significance of the manner and style which the poet employs to draw the scene of the first stanza. "Considering the first scene as a kind of dramatic performance of forces, one must note that the poet has meticulously matched the simplicity of this language to the pretended simplicity of the narrative." There is no definite answer as to why the speaker of the poem stopped, but he is definitely moved by the beauty of the scene. Frost does not make any explicit comments implying that the scene is beautiful or he is moved by it. A second rate writer, in his zeal to overdo, might have said: The vastness gripped me, filling my spirit with the slow, steady sinking of the snow's crystalline perfection into the glimmerless profundities of the hushed primeval wood'. Frost's evasion of these elaborate, explicit, exquisite feelings illustrates two principles of any good work - reticence and understatement. The first he has stated himself in Mowing - anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak. Understatement is one of the basic sources, where English poetry derives its power from.

      Stanza 2. Line. 5-8: In the second stanza, the poet introduces a foil. In fiction and drama, a foil is a character who "plays against" a more important character. By making the more important character confront point of view other than his own and by providing a contrasting set of motives, the foil makes him react in a manner which might never have been expressed otherwise. The foil serves a useful function by working against the more important character. The important character is thus revealed more fully - both to himself and to the reader. Here, in this poem, the foil is the horse.

      The horse here also stands for rustic common sense sans any feelings, emotions and provocations of nature. It is the horse that sets us thinking as to why the man stopped there in the midst of the jungle, far from the essential amenities required for maintenance of human life. And to top it all, on an evening which is the darkest of the year: The speaker in the poem imagines the horse to be asking what possibly could make him stop there. What is there to stop for, out in the cold, away from bin and stoll (house, village and mankind) and all that any self-respecting beast could value on such a night.

      Does this stanza suggest a latent death-wish in the speaker and a desire for self-annihilation in order to taste death ?

      Stanza 3. Line. 9-12: In stanza two, the question arises only as a vague, suggestive feeling within the man and in this next stanza, the horse acts, reinforcing the speaker's question. This is an evidence of a sort of telepathy between the speaker and his horse which could not have been possible without perfect mutual understanding and an excellent rapport between the two. The horse shakes his harness bells. He seems to ask if there is anything wrong. "What are we waiting for ?", he asks. John Ciardi feels that by now, quite obviously, the horse has become a symbol, too, without losing his identity as a horse. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Whatever that something else may be, it definitely begins as that order of life that does not understand why a man stops in the wintry dark middle of nowhere to watch the snow come down. Anything beyond mere common sense is beyond the comprehension of this order. The dark and the snowfall symbolize a vague, fleeting, momentary death-wish. One cannot fall to sense, Ciardi feels, a hunger for final rest and surrender that a man may feel, but not a beast.

      There is also, perhaps in these lines, an implicit indictment of people who live at the level of this beast, the horse: people whose sheer rationale makes them wear blinkers to the beauty of nature and to the feel of godliness which is ingrained in nature.

      Stanza 4. Line. 13-16: This is the final stanza of this short poem. It begins with a comment on the scene. Giving as a 'very subjective comment, the speaker says that the woods are lovely, dark and deep.' The mood of the poet, and his fancy seem to get entangled in the woods that are lovely, dark and deep, as the syllables in which he phrases the thought, keep lingering. But the poets final decision is to put off the poetic, philosophizing mood and to go on. The poet is a man of the world: he has to go on his defined path and has his obligations to tend before he can yield to spontaneous, natural, passionate calls of nature. He has miles to go before he can sleep. He repeats this thought and the poem ends with the end of the performance.

      Line. 16: And miles to go before I sleep - The last stanza of the poem, even if taken in isolation, was sufficient to immortalise Frost and his poem. The repetition of the line And miles to go before I sleep is poignantly symbolic. The first time Frost says And miles to go before I sleep, there can be little doubt that the primary meaning is: I have a long way to go before I get to bed tonight; The second time he says it, however, 'miles to go' and 'sleep' are suddenly transformed into symbols. 'Miles to go' perhaps assumes the dimensions of the tedious, seemingly unending journey of life and 'sleep' symbolises the final sleep-death. This is the most important arid most variedly interpreted of all the stanzas of the poem.

Conclusion:

      The rhythm of the poem, the word-music of stanza three, the expressive phrases of stanza four, the distinctive rhyme scheme of the poem, the efficacy of the repetitions of the last line continue to make" it one of those poems that combine popular appeal with true artistic merit. These qualities make the poem get a certain place in honoured, treasured lyrics of English.

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