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A Layman's Understanding of Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening'

Robert Frost achieves something rare in that his poetry is both literal and elusive, his language both plain and powerfully dramatic.


I like to think of this famous Frost poem as a perfect poem, the most perfect poem of my experience. It is complete, mysterious, beautiful, and fundamentally human. It is really a work of art.

In fact, it?s a work of art in almost the same sense as a painting is a work of art. Just look first at the picture this poem creates. Notice anything? It doesn?t move! Everything happens in still-life. Oh, the harness bells shake a bit, and the wind blows, but neither disturb the setting. The poem in its entirety communicates much, but not with motion.

Now look at the rhyme. Notice how in each verse the rhyme of the third line connects that verse to the next one, until the last verse;


The unavoidable impression is one of descent, almost like walking down steps. In fact if you think about it, this is just the way that you do walk down steps, leaving one foot on the step above as you take the next one down. The rhyme in the picture is taking the speaker deeper and deeper into the scene he is witnessing.

Now consider the progress of the speaker as he makes his descent. He starts off worrying about some human things --- the guy who owns the woods, whether he?ll care if he (the speaker) stops there, and so on. Then in the second verse the subject is the horse. The speaker has descended from human concerns to animal concerns. By the end of the third verse, that concern is gone, too. By then there is nothing but nature itself --- not bitter cold and frozen, but full of ?easy wind? and ?downy flake?.

By the fourth verse, some human concerns try to re-introduce themselves ? ?But I have promises to keep?? . By this time, however, it?s nothing doing. The speaker has made a full descent into his meditation. How do we know this? Because by the fourth verse the rhyme is uninterrupted by other connections. You can tell this in the way the third line is repeated in the fourth line, just the way a chant might lull you into some semi-consciousness.

And in a way, this whole poem is a chant. You can test this theory by reading it to your kid at bedtime. Read it slowly in a low voice; you can almost feel the eyelids drooping as your kid enters that nether-world between wakefulness and sleep.

Generations of school kids have pondered the ?meaning? of this little poem. I myself remember hearing different perspectives; the speaker is contemplating suicide, the speaker is tired of living, the speaker is oppressed by the grubby capitalist who owns the woods. (That last one was courtesy of a 70?s leftist.) But none of these quite get at the nub of the matter. Because this poem is simply about the way we humans descend into meditation, about the power of nature to draw us back to itself, and ultimately, about the very power of words --- a part of nature itself --- to take us where they want us to go.

Generations of readers have loved this poem while never quite understanding it in this way. And that fact itself is the most powerful argument for Frost?s contention. We are not built to require understanding; rather, we are built to respond to the world around us in ways too complex for the rational mind.

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