When I was in junior high and high school, there was one poem that had managed to find its way into all of the textbooks for American literature: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. I don’t think I ever heard from a teacher (or read in a textbook) anything about the context of the poem, but context didn’t matter. American poetry meant Robert Frost, and Robert Frost meant “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
If that poem alone wasn’t enough, a second Frost poem sealed the contract: “The Road Not Taken.” For tens of millions of Baby Boomers, Robert Frost, and these two poems in particular, were our first definition of poetry. (One American literature teacher I had in high school had us read Frost first, and then start at the chronological beginning.)
I don’t know if “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is still included in textbooks today; probably not, since it implies the existence of God and schools can be rather ruthless about such subjects. But it was an enormously influential poem, and even Frost considered it that way, having told fellow poet Louis Untermeyer (who was poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress in 1961) that the poem was “my best bid for remembrance.”
It is a startlingly, and perhaps deceptively, simple poem:
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.
When I was in high school, I liked to think that the last two stanzas were from the perspective of the horse.
The poem uses simple words, and rhyme. It’s full of winter images, which, because I grew up in New Orleans, were for me generally something seen only in pictures and movies. But I understood the images; I think all of my classmates in near-tropical New Orleans did. And we knew enough of life to know that this was a poem about life, and possibly faith.
The poem was written in 1922 and published in 1923 as part of Frost’s New Hampshire collection. And true to Frost’s expectation, it is the poem he’s likely best remembered for.
It was quoted at John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Frost was a favorite poet of the President, which should not be a surprise—many of Kennedy’s speeches use the simple and straightforward language that Frost uses in his poems. (Reading Frost’s poetry is, for me, a long-time speechwriter, almost like reading short speeches.) It was quoted at the funeral of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Nehru kept the last stanza of the poem close at hand.
Where did the poem come from—where did Frost find his inspiration for it?
The story is that he had spent the entire night at his home in Vermont writing the title poem of what became the New Hampshire collection. When he finished, he walked outside, and saw the sunrise. And in that moment, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was born, “without strain, ” Frost said later.
Of course, we could argue that no poem is “just born.” Ideas can occur suddenly, inspired by a sunrise, a child’s smile, the wind rustling the trees, a bird bathing in a birdbath— sources of sudden inspiration are boundless. But had Frost not been living in Vermont that winter and instead spending some time down in Key West, his poem may not have happened at all.
Frost was also 48 when he wrote it, and 46 when he wrote “The Road Not Taken.” These are not the poems of youth; they are poems of middle age, beginning to come to grips with the years ahead, and mortality.
Both poems, and especially “Stopping by Woods, ” left significant imprints on my mind. They come from a twilight time in American education, a time when students were still expected to memorize poems and soliloquies from Shakespeare, when there was a literary canon that almost everyone recognized, even if they might have disagreed with. They are American poems by a supremely American poet, reflecting a different culture than what we know today.
They, and Frost, are still nonetheless important. The poems may speak more to our collective memory than to contemporary sensibilities, but they still speak.
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