Not long ago, I had a conversation with a well-educated friend who doesn’t know a lot about poetry, and I mentioned “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” This friend said, “Well, that poem’s about death, isn’t it?”
I paused, “It might be, but it might not be.” And then I realized that a simple lunch time conversation was not going to be enough time to explain what I meant, so here’s the long answer to that comment.
Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be about death, but it is much more about a simple moment in the woods where the sensory experience involves sight and sound. The poem has a certain uneasiness about it, but that uneasiness is calmed and then reinstated throughout the poem. Here’s the first stanza.
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.
The narrator of the poem has stopped to watch snow falling in woods belonging to someone else. “He will not see me” indicates that the owner of the woods might not be pleased to have someone else observing “his” woods, but more than that the tetrameter line with its four beats per line leaves the reader a little uneasy, unlike the very satisfying pentameter of the sonnet Furthermore, this first stanza establishes the unusual and disconcerting rhyme scheme in which the first, second and fourth lines rhyme but the third does not.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near,
Between the woods and frozen lake,
On the darkest evening of the year
In the second stanza, that odd rhyme scheme and the unsettling rhythm are still present, but by now, the reader had become a little accustomed to them However, in this stanza, Frost established that it is late December (darkest evening of the year). He also establishes that the watcher is not alone. He is with his horse, who, according to the speaker, probably has an opinion about stopping. The “without a farm house near” and “ between the woods and frozen lake” tell us that this woods is isolated. The only beings are the narrator and his horse.
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.
Here the poem really addresses the senses. We have the bells in the first line. If readers have any imagination at all, they can hear the bells in the otherwise silent landscape, silent the way only falling snow can be. Then Frost gives us the most beautiful lines in the poem, “the only other sound’s the sweep/ of easy wind and downy flake.’ The “s”sounds and long “e” sounds create the sound of that wind on our ears. If we are careful readers, we are transported to that place (or some place where we have experienced that silence) and feel both on our faces and in our minds, that “sweep / of easy wind and downy flake.” Then we come to the last 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.
In this stanza, the repeated “ee” sounds echo on our ears. He breaks the rhyme scheme he set up earlier in the poem, so that all four lines rhyme, rather than having that disconcerting odd rhyme in the third line. This provides a kind of resolution. But is death that resolution? I don’t know. What I see is a man who has stopped to savor, with some trepidation, the loveliness of the snow in the woods on his way to somewhere. We don’t know if he is on his way home; we don’t know if he is on some other errand, but he has had a sensuous experience in the woods. The poet has provided that sensuous experience for us. He has left us with a repetition “and miles to go before I sleep” which, of course, leads us to the idea that these are not literal miles, or are perhaps both literal and figurative miles. However, I am not so sure that we can assume that he means that those figurative miles are about death. We all have, unless, we are really close to death, figurative miles to go before we sleep.
What I am left with after reading this poem hundreds of times is the moment, that moment when the narrator is alone in a world of falling snow, and the wind sweeps easily (reassuringly) across his face, it’s a moment of peace. The uneasy meter and the unexpected rhyme scheme lead us to think that the narrator’s world is not necessarily peaceful, but that this moment, this chance stopping provides a small moment in which the wind is easy and the flakes are soft and downy, like feathers.
Is this poem about death? I don’t know. I won’t jump to that conclusion. Rather, I will savor the sensuousness of that moment in the woods and the snow.