Tonight, on this longest (“darkest”) evening of the year, my thoughts turn once again to … Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Since I heard one of my professors tell this story, I have always experienced a twinge of embarrassed hesitation to admit this. Here’s the story:
A friend of mine took a class where the professor asked the students to go around and recite a favorite poem – this was a class of English majors, I take it – and people shared sonnets and modern classics and so, when it came around to my friend, she was horrified to hear her own voice begin reciting … “Whose woods these are, I think I know …”
Horrified. Too low-brow? Too cliché? Too accessible a staple of high school freshman English to be safe for grad school? I didn’t ask, too mortified to admit that if I, myself, had managed to recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” the whole way through on the spot without clutching on “the only other sound’s the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake” not only would I not have been horrified I would have been relieved, and a little proud of myself. But then, I was never an English major.
So I say right out loud: I love Robert Frost’s poetry, as my father taught me to, who loved it before me, and who taught me to love it, by sometimes reading it out loud [“Listen to this! …”], which I also always loved, and talking about it, which I loved, and all of those loves – of poetry, and of hearing it read aloud and of talking about it, and of Robert Frost, and of knowing that my father would love receiving a volume of Robert Frost’s collected poems for Christmas that one year because he loved poetry and Robert Frost and had been an English major, and of my father – are all one fluid thing now, and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is full to the brim with it, and today is its day. More precisely, tonight is its night.
Besides, that English major’s sophisticated horror seems misplaced to me.
The poem has depth. There’s lots of online commentary.
[Including my own from ten years ago, when I was in the middle of writing a dissertation, and thought everyone else had read all the same books I had and would get those cryptic references to postmodern theorists. Ten years later, I barely even get them myself.]
I still think there is something to the idea that there are two kinds of time going on in this poem, though. The cyclical kind brings us round again and again to “the darkest evening of the year;” the linear, forward-facing kind carries us through the one-way stories of our lives from beginning to end and perhaps beyond. Those two kinds of time meet for a moment in the event described in the poem.
I still think, too, that “the darkest evening of the year” is more hopeful than it sounds at first: this is as dark as it gets; daylight is on the way.
More and more, though, I hear religious echoes when I read the poem, the tension between contemplation and action, the clarity of the world we know and the mystery of everything we don’t, yet:
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.
Whose woods? Maybe some local villager’s …
Or, just possibly, God’s. “I think I know” whose woods these are, says the well-schooled but theologically honest and, we suspect, increasingly disaffiliated traveler; but “his house,” the church, “is in the village,” with its clustered houses and neighbors and their bounded way of life. “He will not see” the traveler’s pause for contemplation.
Why the stop, anyway? Why here, on what we imagine is a familiar road that connects one place of human habitation – the village – with another – a farmhouse; why now, in the middle of what we imagine is the carrying out of some familiar errand? But something makes the traveler stop … notice … pay attention …
And that contemplation is at odds with the pull of ordinary life, with everything that needs arriving at and attending to.
The “little horse” – for whom we must feel some tenderness, “little” as he is – doesn’t see what the poet sees; looks forward to some rest ahead, maybe; is impatient for a destination it recognizes. The little animal protests, with that shake of the harness bells.
The rhyme scheme protests, too, in its own way; it’s dynamic; it pulls the reader on, through the poem, from stanza to stanza, those third lines leaning forward into the next stanza, urging the reader on.
Showing up, getting on with it – those are forms of faith, hope, and love, too. We have no particular reason to think the poet traveler finds those unnamed promises burdensome, or irksome, or tedious; they might even be delightful.
Whatever their emotional tone, they impel the traveler to keep moving.
But not before we had to notice … beauty, mystery, eternity … not confined to a house in the village, not remote and removed. This familiar/suddenly unfamiliar way runs right alongside all that, right through all that … and right into it, in the end.