December 20, 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Solstice Evening


Robert Frost called "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" the poem that was his "best bid for remembrance" and it is one that almost every American student encounters.

I'm thinking about that poem on this solstice evening before Christmas which was part of its inspiration.

Robert Frost was a character and he built his own kind of image as a poet for the public. He had said that the poem came to him in one quick rush, but biographers have found drafts of the poem that show revisions. No matter. I am sure it was a poem that came to him in a rush. It has happened to me that way and no matter how much I play with the words and lines later, it will always feel like it came in one piece.

In Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, a story is retold about a conversation Frost had with an audience member about the poem after a reading at Bowdoin College.

The poem had been around for 24 years and was a part of his reading repertoire. During the Q&A,  a young man named N. Arthur Bleau asked that standard and unanswerable question - Which poem is your favorite? Frost replied that he liked them all equally. But after the reading, Frost invited Bleau up to the stage and told him that really his favorite was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And, according to Bleau, he told him the poem's back story.

It was on a winter solstice when Frost and his wife knew they were poor enough that they probably wouldn't be able to buy Christmas presents for their children. Frost was a farmer, but not a very successful one. He took whatever produce he had and took it into town with horse and wagon to see if he could sell enough to buy some gifts.

He didn't sell anything. He didn't buy any presents. He headed home as evening came and it began to snow. Imagine that journey. He had failed as a farmer, but right then he had failed in some way as a father and as a provider.
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.
Perhaps, he was in his own head and not paying attention to the road. Maybe his horse sensed his mood or inattention because it stopped in the middle of a wood that wasn't near home. Frost told Bleau that he "bawled like a baby."

They were still. The snow continued to fill the woods. They were in woods owned by someone who lived in town and might have been a wealthy landowner. The horse shook and jingled its bells. A reminder of Christmas and a reminder to go on and get home to his family.
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.
In the book, Roads Not Taken (page 127), Frost's daughter, Lesley, confirmed the story told at the reading. She said her father told her that "A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time."

I encountered the poem a few times in school. I recall being told it was about responsibility, about taking time to see the beauty around us, about depression and suicide. There's some of all those in it. It's also about going home.

I took my big volume of his poems, The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, off the shelf this morning. I may go for a walk in the little woods near my home today. I do that a lot anyway. And tonight, when the night is dark and deep, I think I will read some Frost poems about winter, snow and going home.

There is also a very nice picture-book edition of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" illustrated by Susan Jeffers

Cross-posted from Weekends in Paradelle


  1. What a touching story! It's interesting to know how poetry and real life meshed in some of these classic poets who, from our distance, seemed to have lived a charmed existence. It's also instructive to see what he left out of the poem so that it isn't maudlin or applicable to too specific a situation.

  2. Now I know the story behind the poem, it makes it all the more poignant . Thanks for sharing the insight.


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