A woman wearing socks bedazzled with s’mores joined our monthly poetry-reading group that grew out of a poetry class I taught last fall. She announced that for the last, oh, who knows how many years, she goes to sleep every night by reciting from memory “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.
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.
— Robert Frost
“I have the picture book,” my new friend said, “with illustrations by Susan Jeffers.”
I let out a squeal of delight because I have it too.
“Mine is autographed,” she added, because when she taught elementary school in 1978 in Colorado Springs, Jeffers visited the school to do a reading. Hence, autographed copies were made available.
Alas, my copy, purchased at a large chain bookstore twenty years ago, has no autograph.
It appears my friend and I have the original printing of this picture book version of the poem. The newer one has more color. I like ours, with austere black and white that invites readers to search for the animals hidden in the snow. Ours does have muted color splashes for the jolly narrator, but in the new edition he’s a little too jolly for my taste.
This is a book I had often read to my children at bedtime, but I never thought to read it to myself. Until Mrs. S’mores Socks showed me the way. So this month, in addition to doing my afternoon poetry memorization with a cup of tea, either outside or before an open window, I also recorded myself reading the book aloud, page turn by page turn, and listened to the recording as I drifted off to sleep.
I memorized the poem in about a week. It’s hard to say whether it was the twice-daily repetition or whether, since it was familiar, it had already halfway hidden itself in my heart.
Although this is a winter poem, it was written in the summer. Frost had been working all night on another poem, “New Hampshire.” Then he went out, saw the June sunrise, and wrote this. The legend is that he wrote it all at once. The Writer’s Almanac records, “He said of the experience, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.”
Frost’s drafts say otherwise.
Here’s another version of the story, from a different edition of The Writer’s Almanac:
More than 20 years later, in 1947, a young man named N. Arthur Bleau attended a reading Frost was giving at Bowdoin College. Bleau asked Frost which poem was his favorite, and Frost replied that he liked them all equally. But after the reading was finished, the poet invited Bleau up to the stage and told him a story: that in truth, his favorite was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He had written the poem based on his own life, he said. One year on December 22nd, the winter solstice, he realized that he and his wife wouldn’t be able to afford Christmas presents for his children. Frost wasn’t the most successful farmer, but he scrounged up some produce from his farm, hitched up his horse, and took a wagon into town to try and sell enough produce to buy some gifts. He couldn’t sell a single thing, and as evening came and it began to snow, he had to head home. He was almost home when he became overwhelmed with the shame of telling his family about his failure, and as if it sensed his mood, the horse stopped, and Frost cried. He told Bleau that he “bawled like a baby.” Eventually, the horse jingled its bells, and Frost collected himself and headed back home to his family. His daughter Lesley agreed that this was the inspiration for the poem, and said that she remembered the horse, whose name was Eunice, and that her father told her: “A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time.”
We are one month into a new year. There will be sunrises worth staying up all night to see. There will be drives during which we will have a good cry (the car will understand, though not as well as a horse). There will be more than enough poems for however miles we have to go before we sleep.
Make a resolution for 2019 — it’s not too late! — to memorize just one poem.
And why not this one? You probably already know the last two lines.
Record it and listen to it at bedtime. Let us know when it’s buried deep in your heart’s newfallen snow.
(Note the spontaneous sound that passed my window just as I read the final “and miles to go before I sleep.”)
Did you memorize “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for February
For the next By Heart gathering, February 22, we’ll memorize Robert Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder,” from 1648. This year Tweetspeak is celebrating the Renaissance, so we’re joining the party by memorizing a classic.
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.
— Robert Herrick
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro