Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening : Robert Frost
Some time ago, in one of my blog posts, I tried to show that Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not Taken”, isn’t as simple and straightforward as it might, at first sight, appear. There’s a bit of ambivalence and ambiguity that invites us to dig a little deeper, and give a little more thought to what’s being said.
This poem is about someone on a lengthy journey on horseback, out in the country, on the “darkest evening of the year”. Darkness has an archetypal significance for us, prompting awareness of vulnerability, and a need for increased awareness.
It seems, perhaps, that the rider isn’t keeping to the usual roads or tracks. He’s ‘taken to the woods’, maybe as a short cut to save time, perhaps to indulge an adventurous impulse, or simply, as he tells us, to “watch the woods fill up with snow”.
He thinks he knows to whom these woods belong. If he’s right, then the owner lives in the village, and so won’t see him stopping there. Does he regret that this person isn’t around to share the moment, or is he relieved, in case he’s wrong and open to challenge for trespass? The poet leaves these possibilities hanging in the air – ambiguity again, as in “The Road not Taken”.
The rider has an awareness of the presence of his horse, and of its sharing of the moment. He understands its puzzlement at an experience that’s out of the usual. Why has there been this seeming diversion, and sudden stop in a “dark” wood that, to the horse, is in the middle of nowhere?
“He gives his harness bells a shake”, as if saying, “What’s going on here? I feel uncertain and wary. Let’s get on our way again.” The sound of his bells creates a greater awareness of the surrounding silence, and that awareness grows to include the feel of the wind, and the touch of the falling snow flakes. And in that moment of expanding awareness, all anxiety dissolves away. The wind feels “easy”, the snow flakes are “downy” and the darkness and depth of the woods are “lovely”. It’s a moment in which, ‘All is Well’.
“Downy” suggest pillows, and the spell of that enchanted moment is broken by the thought that he has “promises to keep”, and “miles to go before I sleep”. Life has its inevitable social obligations, and there is ambivalence again, as in “The Road Not Taken” – ambivalence masterfully caught in the repetition of the last line.
We should read the first “miles to go before I sleep” at the same speed as the preceding line, from which it naturally follows on. Then we should pause, and read the second “miles to go before I sleep” much more slowly and thoughtfully. It’s an encouragement to stop, and to re-evaluate the relative importance and interplay of life’s obligations and priorities.
Promises should be carefully considered for, once given, keeping them is tied tightly to dependability and trust. Priorities, however, must sometimes take precedence over promises, and it’s sometimes right to bring our headlong lives to a halt, in an immediate moment of quiet, heightened and expanding awareness.
Yes, we’ve “miles to go” and “promises to keep”, and it’s right to go them and to keep them, but there’s more to life than miles and even promises. There’s the wonder, mystery, and joy of that ‘here’ and that ‘now’, in which stressful ambivalence and anxiety fade away. Wind becomes “easy”, snow becomes “downy”, and darkness and depth become “lovely”. We’ve re-awoken to the awareness that ‘All is Well’, our priorities are prioritised, and we’re all the better prepared to travel these miles, and to keep these promises.