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'Stopping by woods on a snowy evening'
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.
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.
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.
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.
Often hailed as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States - prior to the concept being formalised in America - Robert Lee Frost espoused a kind of homely self-determinism which chimed perfectly with the perceived spirit of the Founding Fathers and emerging nationhood. Frost was 48 years old when he wrote 'Stopping by woods...' in the June of 1922, ensconced in his New England farmhouse, The Stonehouse in South Shaftesbury, Vermont. The Peleg Cole farm was a ninety acre holding with a granite cottage (circa 1779) and an orchard. Living there since November, 1920, he'd previously farmed (poultry) in Derry, Rockingham County (1900-1911) where, together with his wife, Elinor, he'd raised and schooled his five surviving children (they were both qualified teachers). Harvard educated, Frost was by no means an efficient farmer (he liked to sleep in late into the morning) but enjoyed the freedom it afforded him to write. The farm in Vermont represented an attempt to escape from the rigours of academia - he'd just resigned from a lectureship at Amherst college - although he still enjoyed a well-paid but less taxing visiting fellowship at the University of Michigan.
It had taken a move to England, just prior to the first world war, for Frost to gain an entree into literary society and to forge the beginnings of a reputation. Though he'd had few poems published up to this time, he managed to place his first book A Boy's Will (1913) within two months of his arrival, and the successful North of Boston came out the next year. His friendship with Ezra Pound, and the Georgians Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie and - particularly - Edward Thomas, dates from this period, prior to his return to The States in 1915.
'Stopping by woods...' was first published in New Republic and was included in Frost's fourth publication New Hampshire (1923) which was to win the first of his four Pulitzer prizes. Its author (in old age and about to embark, yet again, on a plane journey) said of it 'If I'd known [...] that when I wrote those few verses they would have led to this amount of travel I wouldn't have written them'. But then, he'd also called the poem 'his best bid for remembrance' and stated that it contained 'all I ever knew'. It is written (bar the last verse) in the Rubaiyat stanza, created by Edward Fitzgerald (aaba) and carries a rhyme over from one verse to the next (chain rhyme). It has been subjected to many interpretations, though Frost thought of it as a simple piece. If 'the darkest evening of the year' means the longest night of the year (21st/22nd December) then the 'promises to keep' would, presumably, be Christmas presents.
'Stopping by woods...' is claimed to have been written 'in a few minutes without any strain'. According to one account, Frost had been sitting in his chair all night by the kitchen table, crickets calling outside 'like a metronome', finishing a poem called 'New Hampshire'...'I went outdoors, got out sideways and didn't disturb anybody in the house, and about nine or ten o'clock went back in and wrote the piece about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I'd had an hallucination - little hallucination - the one critics write about occasionally. You can't trust these fellows who write what made a poet write what he wrote. We all of us read our pet theories into a poem'. In another interview Frost admits that the poem DID require fine-tuning: 'I wrote the third line of the last stanza in such a way as to call for another stanza when I didn't want another stanza and didn't have another stanza in me, but with great presence of mind and a sense of what a good boy I was I instantly struck the line out and made my exit with a repeat end'. Typically forthright, this is the same, no-nonsense Robert Frost who felt that writing vers libre was akin to 'playing tennis without a net'. There is, in fact, a rough draft of 'Stopping by woods...' which shows that the poet was being less than totally ingenuous: he'd had difficulty with the second stanza, leaving the first line of it incomplete after four attempts and completing the second line after one revision.
During the years which followed, when his reputation was being consolidated, Frost was to undergo a series of family tragedies. In 1934 his youngest and favourite child, Majorie, would succumb to Puerperal fever and in 1938 Elinor died suddenly of a heart attack. His son, Carol, would commit suicide in 1940, and another daughter, Irma, would go insane (as had his sister, Jeannie). His apotheosis as the homely sage of New England would continue - 'Stopping by woods...' would become a kind of key-note and coda to the John F Kennedy presidential election campaign - until the posthumous demolition of his good name by his one-time confidant Lawrence Thompson's biographical trilogy (completed 1976) which characterises Frost, in great detail, as an egomaniacal, controlling 'monster' in his personal relationships. Be that as it may (and Thompson would seem to have had his own agenda), Frost's poetic achievement appears likely to survive any criticisms of him as a human being.
Frost, R., Robert Frost: Selected Poems (ed., Hamilton, I.), Penguin (1973).
Lathem, E., Interviews with Robert Frost, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1966).
Parini, J., Robert Frost, A Life, Heinemann (1998).
Thompson, L., Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1966).
Thompson, L., Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1970).
Thompson, L., Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1976).
Kevin Saving © 2008