“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST: THE COLLECTED POEMS, COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002.
In the spring of 2017, I traveled with my father as he was doing research on the former death camps in eastern Poland. Driving back to Lublin, we made a stop in the Renaissance city of Zamość. In the central square, we came upon an old man in a feather hat and high boots standing next to a gray horse and carriage. The coachman offered to take us around.
“I’m the last coachman of Zamość,” he declared.
Curious, I asked: “What do you mean?”
The old coachman replied in Polish, which I could understand, more or less, because I speak Russian: “I’m an old stupid man still to be driving this horse and buggy.”
His words carried me back across the ocean to my native New England. The ride in the old-fashioned carriage at dusk brought to mind the second stanza of one of my favorite poems by the great American poet Robert Frost:
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.
The 48-year-old Frost wrote this melodic poem in Shaftsbury, Vermont, in 1922 and included it in his collection New Hampshire. The poem captures a person’s travels through the night—and through the unknown. The speaker stops to rest in the alluring quietness of the night. This scene in the poem shows the speaker’s peculiar behavior in front of the “little horse.” The speaker seeks a break from his commitments and obligations (“promises”) in life.
The poem continues:
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 question that has been soaring in my head is: Whose woods are these? Who is the greater “he” in the poem? Is it a person—a farmer or a simple peasant boy? “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep,” states the speaker in the final stanza. I wonder again, to whom are these promises given? They could be promised to a specific person or a soul, to God or a higher power, or even to art itself.
To accomplish his meaningful tasks, Frost organized the poem in deceptively simple stanzas with rhymes that travel through the poem like a trotting horse through the woods. The rhyming conjures up the poem’s central theme. In the first three stanzas, the rhyme of the third line becomes the main rhyme of the first, second, and fourth lines in the following stanza: here in the first becomes queer, near, and year in the second. In the final, fourth stanza the whole poem comes together by employing the same rhyme throughout: deep/keep/sleep/sleep.
Why is this poem called one of the best in the 20th century? I think the poem is like an earring that was lost and later found. It shows human nature simplified into little pieces waiting to be discovered. Frost’s poem invites but does not force the reader to keep his or her own promises to people, and to the world.