Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening Critical Analysis
And Miles to Go Before I Sleep
Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of the most interesting and complicated poems I have ever read. There are many ways in which the poem can be interpreted. The speaker of the poem (presumably male) is traveling by a horse-drawn sleigh and stops by a dark forest to gaze at the snow falling. He is drawn to the beauty of the forest, and it seems to lure him into staying. He is reminded by the restless horse that draws his sleigh that he has somewhere to be. The poem could represent many things. It could be a simple theme about the conflict between nature and civilization, or it could have numerous deeper meanings. There are multiple (possibly countless) interpretations of this poem. I will attempt to present a few of my interpretations in this essay.
Assuming that the poem’s theme is simply about a man who feels caught between nature and civilization, the speaker could be pointing out the true beauty of nature and its allure. The woods seem to draw him in and seduce him to stop and watch the snow fall, even though it is winter solstice, the longest and probably the coldest night of the year. There is also some mention that he might know whose land this is, and the thought that he doesn’t want to loiter or be caught there. The speaker is so drawn to the beauty and hypnotic quality of the scene that he has to reluctantly tear his gaze away from it to continue on his journey and fulfill the duties he has in society. He reminds himself that he must continue on and not remain there, because he has “promises to keep” and a long journey still ahead. These obligations force him to pull away from the allure of nature and proceed on his journey. The repetition of the last line “And miles to go before I sleep,” might reflect the speaker’s determination to reach the village and fulfill his obligations. Although it is probably quite dangerous to do so, the man still stops to look at the paralyzing view. This introduces to the reader the idea of the “sublime”, or beauty of nature that is so breath-taking that one can’t help but stop and stare in awe, even if they have prior obligations. This interpretation would suggest that the speaker does have an inner struggle about whether or not to continue on, but does pull himself from the beauty of nature and is strongly determined to continue his journey to rejoin civilization.
Another, much darker, more symbolic interpretation of the poem is that the allure of the forest is symbolic of the allure of death. The worlds “lovely, dark, and deep” seem to represent that death is the means by which the speaker can escape the toils of life and industrialization, and seek the serenity of death. The repetition of the last line “And miles to go before I sleep,” suggests that the speaker is either indecisive about leaving or perhaps already too cold to continue on. This ending to the poem may also suggest that the speaker is already falling to sleep, even as he is trying to tell himself that he must go. The thought that this may be speaking about suicide is somewhat reinforced by the fact that the horse seems to notice that they have stopped in a way that is out of character for the traveler. The traveler’s horse is baffled by the stop and rings its harness bells to signify to the man that they have not yet reached their destination. The traveler makes a stop that is not something he would ordinarily do. It is unclear if the speaker succumbs to the draw of death, postpones the thought, or simply has the determination to continue on to the village to fulfill his obligations. Whether the stop is a temporary diversion or the actual doom of the speaker, the idea that he is drawn in to the allure of death (intentional or non-intentional) is prevalent. The word “sleep” in the poem makes one think that the man has a desire for permanent slumber (or death).
A third, and much cheerier, interpretation is that the poem is a Christmas poem. It could signify a distraction of a weary traveler by the beauty of the forest on the journey home for Christmas. The sleigh that is drawn by the horse that wears harness bells is very reminiscent of Christmas time. The man decides to stop for a moment to enjoy the beauty of nature. The repetition of the last line, “And miles to go before I sleep” may represent the night that he is trying to hurry and arrive before Christmas to deliver gifts. He has much to do before he can sleep. If the poem is about a Christmas traveler, he would have promises to keep because he has made a promise to arrive by Christmas Day and is bearing gifts for his family or hosts. These obligations would be to his family or to the people who are expecting his arrival. The repetition of the last line (a break from the rest of the poem’s rhyme scheme) could signify his determination to break from the serenity of the forest, and continue on his journey to the village.
Obviously, there are many interpretations of this poem. I have only touched on a few here. That is the magic of a brilliant poetic piece. It can take the reader’s imagination to so many different possibile endings and interpretations. My favorite of these interpretations, although darker, is the second. The last line, in all of the interpretations seems to be some sort of resolution. It may have been resolved with determination to make it to the village or with the speaker being unable or unwilling to depart from the forest and succumbing to his death. The actual ending is unclear, and is left to the reader’s imagination to make their own resolution. The line between life and death is somewhat blurred. The poem seems to point out that there is a paradox of life and death. A forest is usually beaming with life. On this cold night, the life that exists in the forest could result in a frigid death for the traveler. If the man is wishing to free himself from this world (succumb to death), he would stay in the forest. In staying because of the allure of death, he would most likely physically die. If he continues on his journey, and makes it to the village, he would most likely live, but the dream of freedom from the world and its obligations would then die. In effect, life is death, and death is life or the possibility of rebirth. To try to explain or break down a poem such as this is somewhat painful. To attempt to describe the complexities of this poem is like destroying a piece of art. Poetry is often meant to be ambiguous, and therein is the beauty of the poem.
Frost, Robert. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Hall, Donald. To Read Literature. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Thompson Wadsworth, 2002. p. 409