I posted an item a while ago expounding on why I feel poetry should be considered literature. Obviously, that still stands. So, I thought I’d write a post about one of my favorite poems. Now, originally, I wrote a bunch of bullet-point ideas on sticky notes one day about this poem, eventually intending on writing a full-blown post, so what follows stems from my piecemeal ideas that I am now attempting to make coherent.
And, instead of a long, drawn-out intro, saturated with words that usually flow out of me like a deluge and, therefore, cannot be stopped, I figured I would buckle down and really, really try and just get right to it.
So here it is.
Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The thing I love about Frost is the imagery he employs. Rural, naturalistic, pastoral. I guess I’d argue that his poems are emblematic of the term “pastoral.” I’ll get more into the imagery later, but first, I’d like to start with the rhyme scheme. Well, honestly, they sort of coincide, as the rhyme scheme, for lack of a better way of expressing it, sort of matches the imagery and almost evokes the same feeling from the reader as if one were standing in the middle of the snow, in the middle of the forest, solitary, staring into the thicket of trees, hearing nothing but the sound of the “downy flake” gently floating down.
The rhyme scheme in this poem in particular is AABA, a pattern that almost rolls the reader along slowly, in line with the actual content – the speaker is at peace, he’s at rest, but he still has “miles to go,” and his horse shakes his harness bells not only to “ask if there is some mistake,” but also to push the speaker along and remind him of his obligations, thus matching the AABA scheme that pushes the reader along through the poem to its end.
It almost emphasizes the last line, the first two sentences rhyming at the end, then a curve-ball with the third, and then back to the familiarity of the fourth.
Moreover, it also conveys that sense of peacefulness that the imagery almost inherently exudes. Form mimicking content, or form complementing content – everything a poet writes, including the way he writes it, is done on purpose. Of course, one would get the sense of solemnity and peace from the imagery alone, but the form really adds to it, bringing the reader in further and making him or her really feel the imagery.
I would say this is akin to, as a weird example, a 3D movie. Hear me out: 3D movies provide for a much more visceral experience – you actually feel as though you are there, in present time, with the characters and experiencing what they are experiencing along with them, no matter how far-fetched the plot or environment. The images literally jump out at you, and it’s almost as if you could touch them. When something comes flying at your face, obviously, the gut reaction is to cower as if it really were coming straight at you. It isn’t a flat image projected on a flat screen – it’s almost interactive.
That could actually take me into those 4D movies, during which actual air and water are spewed at your face while you sit and attempt to pay attention to the movie even though there are a multitude of distractions.
Clearly, I don’t like those.
But anyway, back to my explanation as to why poetry is like a 3D movie: There are multiple things at play. You have the basic imagery, you have the speaker and his/her voice, you have the rhyme scheme that adds to basically everything and enhances the imagery, you have the context, and you have the form the poem takes (as in the stanzas, the shape, etc.).
3D movies and poems are not flat – you have multiple things flying at you that you have to contend with and make sense of (everything adding to meaning) and that make you feel things more so than something with no depth would. In poetry, the form, rhyme scheme, imagery, and more make the poem multidimensional and really bring it to life. And, not for nothing, but there’s something about actually seeing the words on the page – each word, like literally, each word that has ever been created, looks a certain way and conveys a certain sense or feeling. An example would be *cringe* “moist.” Does that not look, feel, and sound like the most disgusting thing? Everyone hates that word. Everyone.
So, I just love seeing words and their interplay on the page. It creates a whole other dimension versus just hearing words and sounds.
But, back to what I was saying – the rhyme scheme adds to the imagery: a peaceful rest before a long, arduous journey. Also, the speaker makes note of the fact that the man who owns the woods won’t see him stopping there because his house is in the village. I think it’s interesting he begins the poem with this information; maybe he feels he doesn’t really belong? There are things that are at odds with one another, and the interplay of the disparities makes for a poem rife with meat to delve into. Maybe he and the owner of the woods are good friends and he’s lamenting that he won’t get to share his respite with him. Or maybe he’s relieved that he won’t see him because he’s trespassing on his property. Content at odds with imagery. The imagery is calm, but the speaker, as well as his
obligations and impending journey, may not be. And, this could also add to the push to get going – his horse jingling his harness bells, the responsibilities that are awaiting him, and the fact that he’s on someone else’s property.
These things add up to kinetic energy – the energy at rest right before it’s about to be used up – while the actual setting, the woods and snow, is so peaceful that one would think one could never feel anxious or precarious enveloped in it.
That is, until a bear comes charging at you or a crazy woodsperson comes running at you with a shotgun and his inbred posse.
That aside, the speaker seems to be trying to revel in the quiet solitude of the woods, but other things are on his mind, preventing him from reaching complete serenity. Although the rhyme scheme rolls slowly and the imagery is placid, the feeling one gets from what the speaker is actually saying paired with the images we are receiving through the poem results in an interesting dichotomy.
He also specifically notes that his horse is wondering why the heck they stopped there and that he’s jingling his bells. Then, he mentions the only other sound being the downy snowfall. Looking at the poem again, I realize something: In each stanza, Frost pairs a reference to noise or motion or something regarding the journey or a disturbance to the atmosphere with the woods and softness of the speaker’s surroundings. So, not only is the content at odds with the imagery, but the lines in each stanza are also at odds with each other.
See for yourself:
“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.”
This is the second stanza. He mentions how he supposes the horse thinks it’s strange they are stopping suddenly and then describes the imagery. So, darkness in the woods can be a bit scary, but we’re sticking with the idea of peacefulness, and in that case, the darkness adds to the solemnity and quietness. Thus, the speaker wondering if the horse thinks it’s weird they stopped and possibly using that as an excuse to get going soon (something I’d do – an anxiety reaction) contrasting with the quiet surroundings.
Further, the first stanza is when he mentions the person who owns the woods and ends it by saying that he won’t see him stopping there to “watch his woods fill up with snow.” Possible worry over getting caught in someone’s woods contrasting with stopping to rest and watching the falling snow covering his surroundings. (Obviously, this is based on one interpretation of those lines.)
Of course, then, he mentions the horse again (going back to what I said about anxiety) and notes the bells and contrasts that with the soft, downy snowflakes and the sweeping wind. Finally, the last stanza finds the speaker noting the beauty of the woods, “lovely, dark, and deep,” but he’s got “miles to go” before he sleeps. Obvious contrast.
And yes, the rhyme scheme has been pushing us along slowly this whole time.
Now, I guess maybe I should expound a little on the anxiety thing I mentioned a couple of times. Putting myself in the speaker’s position, and knowing I have anxiety problems and can never relax, I would not be able to hang out in the woods for long knowing I had miles and miles left on my journey and hearing my horse jingling his bells and wondering what’s going on. The thoughts in my head would certainly not allow me to enjoy the solitude, at least not for long. And that’s why that idea comes to mind for me – maybe the speaker isn’t able to fully relax either, knowing he has a long journey still ahead, and the horse is one continual reminder of that that prevents him from fully enjoying the short respite, which could be why he contrasts each stanza.
Actually, even the rhyme scheme isn’t constant throughout the entire poem – each word at the end of each sentence rhymes in the last stanza, and the last two lines are repeated. And, if we want to get really crazy with it, the rhyme scheme, in some ways, is also at odds with the imagery, even though I originally said it matches: Yes, it somewhat lolls the reader along and is slow and steady, but as I previously mentioned, it almost highlights the last line – and as I also mentioned, the speaker contrasts something breaking the calmness with the peacefulness of the actual imagery. The rhyme scheme rolls the reader into the final line of each stanza, emphasizing the peaceful surroundings (if you look at the poem, the stanzas end with something about nature – the noise or disturbances are mentioned prior to that). By emphasizing this, it’s as if he’s trying to remind the reader – and himself – that the surrounding beauty is remaining constant despite the worries and noises. It stands among everything else.
Now, all of that made sense in my head, so I hope it made sense the way I wrote it out. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I like to exhaust every interpretation possible.
As I read the last stanza, in my head, the last two lines fade out, almost as if the speaker were getting farther and farther away, indicating he is finally embarking on what we can assume is the final leg of his journey. The final stanza changes in relation to the other stanzas, which also could indicate that the speaker has changed – no longer standing amidst the snowy trees but rather mounting his horse and riding off.
Not sure what anyone else gets while reading that last stanza, but that’s kind of what I envision. It sort of fits in with my theory.
Actually, poring through my notes, I found that I wrote something that is the opposite to what I just wrote above (I haven’t actually looked back at my notes in a while): The repetition of the last two lines could, instead of indicating the speaker is riding off into the sunset, intimate that he is languishing, trying to remain at rest for as long as possible – he doesn’t want to leave the peacefulness that he has found. So, they could still be fading off, but they are fading as he speaks them softer and softer, lamenting the fact that he has to leave such a lovely place to continue on a long, potentially difficult journey.
It’s interesting that I read it differently both times. But in any case, the imagery is certainly calming, and I wouldn’t blame him for not wanting to leave. The whole poem, as a result of the rhyme scheme, sort of languishes and rolls along, slowly but surely, creating the dichotomy of peace and tumult – the speaker knows he has to continue on but wants to remain at peace. I find the poem almost paradoxical – it feels slow, but it’s almost like the calm before the storm, which begs the question, can one truly and genuinely enjoy the calm beauty knowing one has this arduous journey looming ahead? I probably couldn’t; I would be too distracted. And this brings us back to the horse jingling his bells and reminding the speaker that they have to leave. That’s yet another dichotomy – the horse’s bells against the quiet wind and snow, as I mentioned before.
One of my favorite literary paradigms through which to view something is allegory, and many allegorical poems employ the use of pastoral, natural imagery – in the Romantic period, nature was often used to represent God and/or religion. “Tintern Abbey” was just one example; Wordsworth was lamenting over society’s diminishing religiosity and believed that the rejuvenation of faith and becoming close with God once again would repair the damage that had already been done and bring people closer together. Frost is a perfect example of nature in poetry and, thus, can be viewed through allegory.
Through this perspective, we can take the snowy, wooded evening and the darkness surrounding the speaker and view this as an almost purgatory-like state. The woods represent something unclear, something that cannot fully be seen, and certainly not a final destination. The ambiguity the woods create, and looking at the poem as a whole, might represent a sort of blissful ignorance – the speaker is in the middle of the woods on a dark, snowy evening, with only his horse for company, and is reveling in the peace he has found, albeit temporary; he has no idea what the journey ahead beholds. This impending journey may be the journey to leave purgatory and reach God – his journey in finding, or becoming close to, God or even just a general sense of religion.
Society during the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic period basically lost God as a result of all of the factories and machines that had sprouted up, essentially forcing people to leave their pastoral countryside homes (and their religious lifestyles – I guess living simply in the country provided for more time for prayer and a closeness to God) in search of employment and a “new life” in the cities. This resulted in what was known as the “crisis of faith,” during which many cast aside their religious backgrounds and delved into the working world. Seeing the factories and new machinery and knowing that man himself built all of this and that they can create virtually anything they needed made them feel as though they didn’t need God anymore. They didn’t need to rely on Him for a good rainy season to water the crops; they didn’t need Him to provide them with a healthy harvest; they didn’t need Him to heal them when they became ill – almost everything they needed could be found in the cities, created by man.
Anyone who knows about this time period knows that this did not bode well for society and that society – well, to put it bluntly, society went down the tubes pretty quickly. All of the newfound industries and jobs were great on the surface, but they also resulted in many deaths, disease, and pervasive misery. Therefore, there were some who believed that rekindling a relationship with God would restore the happiness and harmony that had been lost.
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not even sure during what period Frost was writing (I could look it up, but I’d rather just plow forward), but this poem in particular could certainly be viewed through an allegorical perspective, in my opinion. I’m not sure of Frost’s background or whether he was a very religious man, but I’ve learned so much about what nature represents in poetry that I just can’t ignore viewing this poem through that lens.
Of course, we can also look at Hemingway and how he believed that in order to get truly “in tune” with oneself, as well as God, one has to immerse oneself completely in nature. Only then is one‘s true self and purpose revealed. I mean, honestly, after being in the woods for a long time, I think anyone’s “true,” primal instincts would emerge, really out of pure necessity, not even necessarily because one is trying to pry them out. So, I guess, he’s kind of right. But I think also the liberation one would achieve after having been in nature for an extended period of time would be almost like coming into a new sense of self, as well. I know that for me, spending a lot of time outdoors, especially in the summer, enables me to better relax and be more attuned to certain things within myself. So maybe the imagery Frost employs is really him working through his sense of self and attempting to become truly in tune with himself and his surroundings. It’s definitely grounding, when you really think of these things.
So, all of the paragraphs above are basically some of my thoughts on “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Lots of dichotomy, the slow-but-steady flow and rhyme scheme, the peaceful scenery – maybe the speaker was trying to find himself, or maybe he was on his way to find God.
I love poetry for this reason – varying interpretations abound, and each time you read a poem, you uncover something new. If I put this aside for a while and come back to it, I’m sure I will have many other thoughts to add in.
Maybe I’ll thrust myself into nature for a little and then come back to this – maybe I’ll have found my true self.