• By David B. Gosselin

Beyond the Lines: Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"


A century after its composition, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” continues to leave readers, academics, poetry lovers, and poets alike pondering its meaning.


Undoubtedly, the poem has a magical quality: its images are simple, yet elusive; the scene of dark woods, snow-blanketed trails, and a single farmhouse are painted with clarity, yet remain open to a wide array of interpretations. Despite its subjective qualities, the poem’s “magic” has a definite structure—one well-worth investigating.


Frost himself once commented on the poem, saying that it was his “best bid for remembrance.” Other accounts report that whenever he was asked if the poem was about death or suicide, he simply replied “no.” Taking these limited accounts into consideration, let us look at Frost’s poem and investigate the deeper structures of this timeless composition.


As most Frost readers are well aware, he seldom presented a set of images or landscapes without at the same time weaving in some deeper metaphorical meaning. This approach is echoed in Frost’s famous aphorism: “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Below the pleasing surface lurks a deep and subtle lesson.


The poem reads:


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.


At first glance, the poem does seem to present a simple scene, but upon further analysis, a very nuanced set of lines appears. Beyond the snowy path, single farmhouse, little horse, and dark woods—the poem’s “surface structure”—there lies a “deep structure.”


While it is perhaps naive to assume a reader can know exactly what Frost is referring to with each word and line, exact knowledge isn’t necessary to appreciate its deeper poetic meaning. In fact, that may very well be part of the poem’s charm. The ostensible meaning and individual predicates may imply various possibilities, but the poem’s well-executed form, subtlety, and imagery, lead to a definite effect.


In this respect, we can point out that knowledge of any particular is always limited, representing only one level of knowledge. On the other hand, universal knowledge of Being implies something beyond all parts—a single unity. The specifics and particular meaning of individual images and thoughts found in Frost’s head as he composed the poem can be seen as secondary to the singular poetic effect generated—one that raises us above the dark woods, snowy trails, and silent houses to something qualitatively higher.


Indeed, in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe specifically described poetry and its function in terms of poetic effect, and how various elements and images should work towards creating a single unity of effect—known as “Beauty”:


When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the beautiful.


While individual thoughts may remain ambiguous, that, in and of itself, can serve as a crucial element in communicating a more definite state of mind and poetic effect—the “pure elevation of the soul” which lies at the heart of creative life. The attainment of any kind of higher truth requires a qualitative “leap”—or transcendence—from all particulars to the universal, unspoken, and intangible. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” seems to speak to this higher spiritual quality, which is perhaps why Frost thought it might be his best bid for remembrance.


With that said, let us consider the definite characteristics that make the poem’s higher poetic effect possible. Frost opens the piece by describing his stop in front of a snowy wood, presumed to be the property of someone he knows:


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.


After the first stanza, Frost addresses the seemingly ambiguous pause in his journey:


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 then speaks to the silence and darkness permeating the scene, broken only by the shake of “harness bells,” “easy wind,” and “downy flake”:


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.


Naturally, a horse doesn’t consider the same kinds of questions human beings do: horses don’t reflect on the meaning of their mortality, or choose to alter their fate based on such reflections. Trained as it is to carry people around in carriages and sleighs, the horse responds with confusion, captured in its giving “his harness bells a shake.” The presence of the horse itself creates an ambiguity and creative tension in the poem. There seems to be no ostensible reason for stopping.


While the horse cannot understand why Frost might stop, we can imagine various reasons. Frost then subtly directs the reader’s attention away from the image of a confused horse towards another image—dark woods:


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.


The image of a “lovely, dark, and deep” wood compels serious questions—not least because he ends with such mystifying imagery—and the word “sleep.” Sleep serves as the end rhyme for the last two lines, and echoes the earlier “deep” and “keep.” The silence and ruminative air (only broken by the shake of bells) has the effect of inducing the same reflective state in the listener’s mind.


Is Frost speaking of literal sleep? We don’t know, but Frost understood that an artful use of ambiguity can be a very powerful tool. The gaps in meaning created by the subtle use of ambiguity inspire new questions and provoke new meanings. So the great poets and philosophers have always been busy creating new paradoxes and anomalies within the reader’s mind. Doing so allows them to compel the mind forward in search of a deeper truth. However, Frost’s contemplating whether to enter a dark wood was not a new idea or image. In fact, the very first poem of his very first poetry collection, A Boy’s Will, presented a similar image:


Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees, So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom, But stretched away unto the edge of doom. I should not be withheld but that some day Into their vastness I should steal away, Fearless of ever finding open land, Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand. I do not see why I should e’er turn back, Or those should not set forth upon my track To overtake me, who should miss me here And long to know if still I held them dear. They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.


It seems that Frost was already acquainted with dark woods and dark nights, but how he treats these woods and darkness is most indicative of the nature and quality of his thinking. “Into My Own” presents the “dark trees” as a world of the unknown and its “vastness,” which while we may have intimations of in the present mortal vale, can never be fully known until we reach the “edge of doom.”


Frost’s wish is that he could fast-forward to that moment at “the edge of doom” in order to prove in absolute terms the truth of his convictions. Thus, “Into My Own” presents the dark trees as a point of no return, something beyond the temporal realm. They do not represent some alternative reality, but one in which the passing and ephemeral conditions of the mortal world can be found rooted in the unchanging principles governing all the things—the eternal. Venturing into the dark woods becomes the ultimate test of whether one held the right convictions in the temporal realm.


In the case of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost’s very stopping amid the dark wood says something about his state of mind. That he chose to gaze into the dark wood reveals something too. How many might just walk right by the proverbial “dark woods” and never stop? But Frost is not running, he is not walking—he is perfectly still and silent. In light of the fact that Frost declines to provide any definite answer, consider the stillness and calmness of Frost’s disposition in relation to the dark wood. Properly understood, silence may be considered the highest form of communication—the richest—because it serves as a recognition of what cannot be said: the limitations of words and language i.e. the ultimate inexpressible nature of absolute Truth proper. This recognition leads to a much subtler approach where things must necessarily be expressed in their highest form as silence.


Whether it be the question of the finite and absolute infinite (God), the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material and immaterial, motion and stillness, or speech and silence, as long as we remain within the realm of logical contradiction, many ironies, paradoxes, and metaphors remain out of reach. So the Gospels tell us “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” that “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” and that those often considered fools by the majority may turn out wiser than the wise, and the poor richer than their rich. Indeed, Truth and Beauty emerge in their clearest form in the contrast between light and darkness, harmony and dissonance, sound and silence.


In this light, poetry and art’s purpose is to express what literal words and language necessarily cannot, making use of artful contrasts and paradoxes. So both prophet and poet make heavy use of metaphor, irony, and parable. They express the inexpressible in new intelligible forms. They do so in order to transport people beyond the surface meaning of words, into the realm of ideas which underlie them. In this respect, poetry per se is what is not said—what it brings forth.


As the fifteenth-century cardinal and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa demonstrated with his method of "Learned Ignorance" (De Docta Ignorantia), absolute motion necessarily appears as perfect stillness in the mind’s eye, since anything short of perfect stillness implies a motion that can still be comparatively measured as greater or lesser i.e. it is not absolute. From the standpoint of Learned Ignorance, absolute and infinite motion must necessarily appear as perfect stillness—anything less than perfect stillness being still measurable in terms of more or less. In this respect, the most enlightened speech necessarily entails some quality of silence; the brightest and most divine light must ultimately appear as what Cardinal Cusa called sacred darkness. Anything less would imply the possibility of still more brightness, therefore not being “the One” and absolute brightest. Elaborating on this idea in his De Visione Dei (The Vision of God), Cusa writes:


When our eye seeks to see the sun’s light, which is the sun’s face, it first looks at it in a veiled manner in the stars and in colors and in all participants in the sun’s light. But when our eye strives to view the sun’s light in an unveiled manner, it passes beyond all visible light, because all such light is less than the light it seeks. But since it seeks to see a light which it cannot see, it knows that as long as it sees something, this is not the thing it is seeking. Therefore, it must pass beyond all visible light. So if one has to pass beyond all light, the place into which he enters will have to be devoid of visible light; and so, for the eye, it will be darkness. Now, while he is amid that darkness, which is an obscuring mist: if he knows that he is within an obscuring mist, he knows that he has approached unto the face of the sun. For that obscuring mist arises in his eye as a result of the excellence of the light of the sun. Therefore, the more dense he knows the obscuring mist to be, the more truly he attains, within that mist, unto the invisible light. I see, O Lord, that in this way and in no other the inaccessible light and beauty and splendor of Your Face can be approached unveiledly. De Visione Dei – Nicholas of Cusa (1453)


By raising ourselves above any quantitative or comparative notion of more or less, brighter and darker, slower and faster, we become capable of contemplating Truth in its purest form, that is, in terms of quality rather than quantity i.e. the absolute. Here, “the Many” appears as the endless variation and countless discrete expressions of “the One.” In the words of John Keats, “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”


While such stillness and silence may lack clarity or meaning for the unenlightened pupil, both the sage and poet know them to be infinitely richer, clearer, and more true than that which can be either directly heard or directly spoken. Alas, Frost’s seemingly paradoxical stillness, sparseness, and lack of definite meaning suggest his sentiments are not be the result of a lack of words, but quite the opposite. Maybe Frost’s purpose was to leave us with just enough space and silence to contemplate the scene and its silence in the fullness with which he originally experienced it?


Conclusion


Much like Socrates, Frost was not one to explain his meaning. He used paradox and parable, affording readers an opportunity to reflect on the nature of things more deeply. Such acts cannot be taught with literal speech, but only through metaphor, irony, paradox… i.e., poetry—by creating new “gaps” in our thinking.


While “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” raises more questions than it answers, that may very well be its purpose. As in a Platonic dialogue, the questions are usually more important than the answers; the paradoxes are more central to the dialogue than any ostensible final answer. And more often than not, the confusion and difficulties that arise from such works stem from the individual’s attempts to formalize the approach and its answers into crystalline forms and perfect categories i.e. nominalism. So the mind loses sight of the actual substantive verbal Socratic/dialectical process which makes any and all realizations of present and future discoveries possible. Once this essential process of creative discovery and playful investigation is lost, it’s only a matter of time before words lose their meaning, terms become confused, and before we know it plans for a new Tower of Babel appear.


Having read Frost’s poem, the reader may stop a while longer when passing by a snowy wood and, perhaps, think and wonder a little longer. Rather than fearing the silence, or stillness, they might embrace it, and return to the world of things with a new-found depth, appreciation, and awareness of life and its wonders.


So Frost declares: “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Rather than a poem about death, this is a poem about life.


David B. Gosselin is a writer, researcher, and poet based in Montreal. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.

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