On a Snowy Evening
A Poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
A Study Guide
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening ” is a lyric poem. It was first published in the New Republic on March 7, 1923, and republished later that year in a collection of Robert Frost's poems entitled New Hampshire. This collection won Frost a Pulitzer Prize and widespread recognition as an important American writer.
Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” while residing in the village of Franconia in the northwestern corner of New Hampshire. It seems likely that woods near Franconia inspired him to write the poem and that Franconia is the village mentioned in line 2. The time is “the darkest evening of the year.” If by this phrase the speaker/narrator means the longest night of the year—that is, the night with the most hours of darkness—then the day is either December 21 or 22. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs each year on one of those days. The solstice is the moment when the sun is farthest south.
The Observer (Speaker/Persona/Narrator): A person traveling by a horse-drawn wagon (or cart or carriage) on a rural road. The traveler stops to observe snow piling up in woods.
The Horse: A small horse with a bell attached to its harness. It shakes its head, ringing the bell, to signal that it does not understand why its master has stopped.
Owner of the Woods: A man who lives in a nearby village. He is mentioned in the first stanza of the poem.
By Robert Frost
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.
Comment: The traveler appears worried that he is committing an offense by looking upon woods owned by another man. Nevertheless, he steals a look, for the other man "will not see me stopping here."
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.
Comment: This stanza says that the location is remote (without nearby farmhouses), that the weather has been cold enough to freeze a lake, and that the evening is the darkest of the year. Darkest here could have more than one meaning—that is, the traveler could be depressed, downcast. However, the horse probably
thinks it odd that his master has stopped between the woods and lake on a dark evening, the speaker says. This observation suggests that the darkness is external only, for the speaker is using the word darkest to explain the horse's reaction.
Use of little (line 5): Here, the poet bids for the sympathy of the reader. The word little suggests that the speaker/narrator is a humble, ordinary citizen who cannot afford a more imposing horse.
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.
Comment: Sounds are important in this stanza—namely, the sounds of the bells, the wind, and the snowflakes. All of the sounds are gentle, contrasting with the cacophony of everyday life in a town.
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.
Comment: The traveler would like to stay awhile and perhaps even enter the woods to absorb their ambience and ponder the mystery of life and nature. However, he has obligations and responsibilities. Therefore, he decides to move on. But the poem does not say whether he in fact moves on. One presumes that he does.
Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
AlliterationHis house is in the village though (line 2)
He will not see me stopping here (line 3)
To watch his woods fill upwith snow (line 4)
He gives his harness bells a shake (line 9)HyperboleTo watch his woods fill up with snowMetaphorHe gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake. (lines 9-10)
Comparison of the sound of the bells to a questioning voice that asks whether there is a mistakePersonification/MetaphorMy little horse must think it queer
Comparison of the horse to a human. Only a human can determine whether something is "queer."
The end rhyme in the poem is as follows:First stanza, aaba
Second stanza, bbcb
Third stanza, ccdc
Fourth stanza, ddddInternal Rhyme
Here are examples of internal rhyme in the poemHe will not see me stopping here (line 3)
My little horse must think it queer (line 5)
To stop without a farmhouse near (line 6
Between the woods and frozen lake (line 7)
The darkest evening of the year (line 8)Meaning of the Poem
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” presents one person’s momentary encounter with nature. We do not know whether the speaker (narrator) is a man or a woman. In fact, we know nothing at all about the person except that he or she has been traveling on a country road in a horse-drawn wagon (or cart or carriage) on "the darkest evening of the year."
If by this phrase the speaker/narrator means the longest night of the year—that is, the night with the most hours of darkness–then the day is either December 21 or 22. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs each year on one of those days. The solstice is the moment when the sun is farthest south. However, if by "darkest evening" he means most depressing,
bleakest, or gloomiest, he may be referring to his state of mind.
Let us assume that the speaker is a man, the poet Frost himself, who represents all people on their journey through life. When he sees an appealing scene, woods filling with snow, he stops to observe. Why does this scene appeal to him? Because, he says, the woods are “lovely, dark, and deep.”
Perhaps he wishes to lose himself in their silent mystery, away from the routine and regimen of everyday life—at least for a while. Maybe the woods remind him of his childhood, when he watched snow pile up in hopes that it would reach Alpine heights and cancel school and civilization for a day. Or perhaps the woods represent risk, opportunity—something dangerous and uncharted to be explored. It could be, too, that they signify the mysteries of life and the afterlife or that they represent sexual temptation: They are, after all, lovely, dark, and deep.
The traveler might also regard the woods as the nameless, ordinary people who have great beauty within them but are ignored by others. This interpretation recalls a theme in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” in which Gray writes:
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Perhaps Frost sees the woods as a symbol of the vanishing wilderness consumed by railroads, highways, cities, shopping centers, parking lots. A man in the village owns the woods now. What will he do with them?
In 1958, poet John Ciardi (1916-1986) suggested in Saturday Review magazine that the woods in Frost's poem symbolize death. He further wrote that the speaker/narrator wants to enter the woods—that is, he wants to die, commit suicide. Frost himself scoffed at this interpretation in public appearances and in private conversations. But is it possible that Frost's subconscious mind was speaking in the poem, revealing thoughts and desires unknown to his conscious mind?
Maybe, in the end, the woods and the snow are what they are: quiet, peaceful, beautiful. Although the traveler wants to stay to look at them, he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.
The poem consists of four stanzas, each with four lines. (A four-line stanza is called a quatrain.) Each line in the poem has eight syllables (or four feet). In each line, the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on. Thus, the poem is in iambic tetrameter. An iamb is a foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A tetrameter is a line of poetry or verse containing four feet. (If you need detailed information on meter, click here.) The following example—the first two lines of the poem–demonstrates the metric scheme. The unstressed syllables are in blue; the stressed are in red capitals. Over each pair of syllables is a number representing the foot. Also, a black vertical line separates the feet.
Whose WOODS..|..these ARE..|..I THINK..|..I KNOW
His HOUSE..|..is IN..|..the VILL..|..age THOUGH
Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, California, where he spent his childhood. In 1885, after his father died of tuberculosis, the Frosts moved to Massachusetts. There, Robert graduated from high school, sharing top honors with a student he would later marry, Elinor White.
Frost attended Dartmouth and Harvard, married Miss White in 1895, worked farms, and taught school. In his spare time, he wrote poetry. Disappointed with the scant attention his poems received, he moved with his wife to Great Britain to present his work to readers there. Publishers liked his work and printed his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, in 1913, and a second poetry collection, North of Boston, in 1914. The latter book was published in the United States in 1915.
Having established his reputation, Frost returned to the United States in 1915 and bought a small farm in Franconia, N.H. To supplement his income from the farm and his poetry, he taught at universities. Between 1916 and 1923, he published two more books of poetry—the second one, New Hampshire, winning the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. He went on to
win three more Pulitzer Prizes and was invited to recite his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Frost died in Boston two years later. One may regard him as among the greatest poets of his generation.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- It is extremely important to select the right word, with the most appropriate connotation, to present a thought or an image. Why do you suppose Frost chose to use woods instead of the forest? Why did he choose easy instead of gentle in the fourth stanza?
- Write a short profile of the speaker/narrator/traveler. True, the poem provides little information about him (or her). However, we do know that (1).he apparently does not want to be seen observing the woods by the man in the village; (2) he owns a little horse; (3) he is a keen observer and reporter, who tells us what the horse may be thinking and describes the sounds of the wind and snowflakes; (4) he appreciates nature; (5) he keeps his promises—or at least tries to do so.
- Why did Frost end the poem repeating the same line?
- Recall and write about the thoughts going through your mind during a snowstorm (or another weather event).