Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
One of the marks of great art is that you can never come to an end of appreciating it. It stands before you, remarkably itself, as if it possessed a human soul, and perhaps, in a way, it does; or rather, a human soul has poured itself into the work, and you can no more learn it all the way through than you can know a human being all the way through. And perhaps the greatest works of art are those that themselves address an infinite mystery, whether of God, or of man, or of the created world. Even the world we too often tend to reduce to matter, to what we can measure and quantify, infinitely overflows those bounds, and though a scientist may know more things about the snow, the woods, a frozen lake, and a horse that isn’t fond of the chilly night, that doesn’t mean that he knows those things better than the artist does, or that he even knows them at all. Maybe he does, and maybe he doesn’t.
Frost’s poem about the snowy woods is meant to be mysterious, and the mystery doesn’t have to do with fancy language, or sentences you can’t make heads or tails of, or arcane literary or philosophical allusions. There aren’t any of those. A child can understand any of his sentences. The mystery has to do with the things the speaker sees, his love of them, maybe his fear of them too, and why they are so appealing even though they are dangerous, why the shadow of death hangs over them, and what promises the speaker says he must keep, promises that appear to prevent him from entering the woods. For he is not in the woods: he is by them.
Every word is precisely chosen, and the scene carefully set. The speaker is “between the woods and frozen lake,” on “the darkest evening of the year.” There are no houses in the woods, no touch of human warmth. The lake is frozen, but we are not told that it is frozen solid. If you go into those woods, you may get lost there, because when the woods fill up with snow, all tracks, all paths will be lost. And who knows what would happen if you went out onto the lake? Meanwhile, somebody does own the woods. The speaker thinks he knows who the owner is; but he is not certain. It seems that if it were not winter, the owner might mind his lingering, but since all human purposes go by the board on such a night, “he will not mind me stopping here,” says the speaker, “to watch his woods fill up with snow.” And there is a third character in the dramatic moment, the “little horse.” He isn’t a thoroughbred. He isn’t a plow-horse. He is, however, pulling something, probably a sleigh, possibly a carriage, and he has, shall we say, horse-sense, common sense. He finds it cold, and he wants to go home. But the man, who also finds it cold, does not exactly want to go home. We are not told why, except that the woods “are lovely, dark, and deep.”
Each stanza is bound to the next one by a deft use of rhyme. The first, second, and fourth lines all rhyme, with the third line the odd one out. Yet Frost uses that line to introduce the rhymes for the succeeding stanza. It is a form of what Dante did with his three-line groups in the Divine Comedy, rhyming on the first and third lines, and rhyming the second line with the first and third lines of the succeeding tercet. But what do you do for the final stanza? There won’t be any next stanza for the third line to introduce the reader to. Rather than letting that line hang out to dry, Frost simply allows it to be the fourth line also, so that the whole four-line stanza rhymes with itself. So does it come to a quiet, powerful, and haunting conclusion. But there’s more, always more. I will mention something that Frost surely knew of. It was an old form of poem-linking called a “corona.” John Donne did it in a set of sonnets he called by that name. He took the final line of his first sonnet, and he made it the first line of the second sonnet, and so on. But when he came to his final sonnet, he made its final line to be first line of the first sonnet, so that the whole became a complete ring, a corona or crown. Now, Frost wanted a sense of finality and not of circling back to the beginning. And yet he does circle back, too. He makes the doubled final lines of the last stanza to echo the rhymes of the first stanza: the speaker says, twice, that he has miles to GO before he sleeps. As they used to say on certain television commercials, don’t try this at home.
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.