Poems of My Father — #4

Photo by Jasper Graetsch on Unsplash

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 (1874–1963)

My dad loved the poetry of Robert Frost. Growing up, we would read “Birches” and “Mending Wall.” One of my dad’s favorite introductions to poetry was the book Sound and Sense which included this marvelous two line poem of Frost’s called “The Span of Life:”

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

The pace of the poem mirrors its meaning — the sound and sense work together. Read it out loud. The first line moves slowly like the old dog — it’s work to get voice the phrase “the old dog barks backwards.” The second line is as frisky as a pup.

My dad also had a deep connection to Frost’s line “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It captured my dad’s view of his journey through life — some complaints, spats, and the occasional shouting match mixed in with the good times.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is to my ear, a nearly perfect poem. First, the rhyme scheme: AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD. The third line of each verse rhymes with three of the four lines of the next verse until we get to the end. Frost breaks the pattern and has all four lines rhyme.

When you read it out loud, the echoes in the rhyme scheme are just beautiful. I have probably read it out loud hundreds of times. We had a lovely illustrated version of the poem in book form that I read to each of our children over so many nights before bed. They soon knew it by heart. That last line, “And miles to go before I sleep” felt like a lullaby. You can just keep repeating it over and over again.

It’s tempting — and many have given in to this temptation — to see the sleep in the last verse as a reference to death and to cast the poem as a meditation on mortality, with the woods being an ominous passage to the inevitable darkness. Bolstering this interpretation is that the woods are “dark” and it is the “darkest” evening of the year.

A simpler reading which I prefer (today, anyway) is that the poem is about the tension between being present in the moment — experiencing awe and transcendence — and the desire we have to push ahead, to work, and to achieve. If we are only in the present, we will struggle to keep our promises. We have work to do before we sleep, whether that’s tonight or the future sleep of death.

The first three verses and the first line of the fourth verse capture an essential human experience — pausing to savor the snow, the speaker in the poem wonders about the owner, reassures himself that the owner won’t even know he’s there, is reminded by his horse that he’s not completely alone, and finally, savors the still small voice of the “easy wind” and “downy flake.” So much of the poem is soothing rather than ominous.

In choosing to remind us of this oh-so-mundane moment, Frost reminds us to savor the small pleasures of existence. And to remember that we have miles to go before we sleep — things to accomplish before we can rest for more than a brief moment.

Questions to Think About:

  1. Why do you think Frost chose the title he did?
  2. Are the woods lovely but also dark and deep? Or are they lovely because they are dark and deep?
  3. What does Frost gain and lose by having the last two lines of the poem be the same?

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.