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In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by 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.

Why does the narrator stop in the woods at all? There's no farmhouse nearby and there's seemingly no reason the narrator stops in the woods when he has a promise to keep and miles to travel.

  • The answer is literally in the fourth line of the poem... – CHEESE Jan 25 '17 at 1:21
  • @CHEESE "His house is in the village though;" How does this answer the question? Yes, he's fine stopping in the woods because the owner is away, but why does he stop in the woods? That's the real question. – fi12 Jan 25 '17 at 1:22
  • Sorry, meant the 4th line :-) – CHEESE Jan 25 '17 at 1:25
  • @CHEESE That's the basic essence of the answer, but it's undescriptive evidence by itself and doesn't lend itself to more complex literary discussion. – fi12 Jan 25 '17 at 1:26
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Because he wants to end it all

Taken at face value, Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a pastoral poem describing a rider's pause on a journey to admire some scenery. As such, it is superbly crafted, and with few blemishes. It stands equal to Wordsworth's Daffodils, inasmuch as it is picturesque and enormously popular. The poem makes few demands on the reader: the structure and rhyme scheme are conventional, the poem is short, as are the word and line lengths, and it contains no literary references or allusions. In other words, it is an easy read.

However, if a literary work does not address the human condition in some way, and has only creamy charm to commend it, it must be considered inconsequential. Fortunately, Frost can be enigmatic, so if we want to make sense of this poem, we must be prepared dig a little. It is not too difficult.

In the opening verse, the narrator places us in woods outside a village. It is snowing.

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.

This immediately raises a question, although is it easily missed, coming so early in the poem. Who is the narrator referring to, and is he important? Is he the person that the narrator went to see? Why does the narrator care if he is being observed? It is not illegal to admire some trees from a public road, and who has not stopped occasionally to watch snow falling? Never mind. Too many questions, and too soon. Let us read on.

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.

The narrator now tells us that he is far from any shelter, and it is mid-winter. Why has he undertaken a long journey, so late in the day, and at such an inclement time year? Could he not have stayed in the village, and found lodgings for himself and stabling for his horse? One possible explanation is that he had no money to pay for it, and so had no choice but to ride home, through the night if necessary.

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 writer admitted that this verse caused him some anxiety, since no self-respecting rider would use a fancy harness on a working horse, and the mention of harness bells in the first line might have been the cause of some derision, at least among critics.

Indeed, the third verse is almost a filler, since it gives us no new information. Instead, it asks another question. Is there some mistake in stopping here to admire the view? The answer is no, there is no mistake, just one final question that is about to be answered.

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.

Here is the pay-load of the poem. The woods are lovely because they are dark and deep, and a man could lose himself to the world in them quite easily. No one is watching him, and the snow will soon cover his tracks. No one will come looking for him for some hours, at least until the horse is found.

We can guess that the narrator is short of money, else he would have found lodgings for the night. Perhaps his errand was about money? Perhaps he needed to borrow money, or reclaim a debt, or explain why he could not repay one himself? Whatever the reason, the outcome was not a happy one, and he must return home empty-handed.

So, to be or not to be? Like Hamlet, the narrator has responsibilities: promises to keep, and he must go home, if only to deliver bad news. Quietness with a bare bodkin is not an option. The penultimate line of the poem, repeated with great finesse, echoes the slow plodding of the horse as the narrator continues his journey.

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    I see no indication in this poem whatsoever that the narrator is impoverished. A truly poor man wouldn't own a horse and wagon. And there are lots of other reasons people have for committing suicide. – Peter Shor Sep 15 '17 at 11:46
  • @PeterShor Perhaps you could explain the significance of the line "But I have promises to keep"? – Mick Sep 15 '17 at 17:13
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    He has obligations to other people that he needs to fulfill. There's no reason these have to be financial. – Peter Shor Sep 15 '17 at 19:20
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The narrator stops because he wants to enjoy the scenery of the forest. Assuming that the journey the narrator has to make is an extensive one (miles to go before I sleep), the narrator wants to take a small break to watch the natural wonder of the snowfall and the beauty of the trees.

There are several lines that support this idea:

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is the clearest statement of the purpose of the narrator stopping in the woods.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

This could be interpreted several ways, but to me, I see this as the narrator's wondrous appreciation of the heavy snowfall.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

This line hints that the narrator wants to spend more time observing the forest, but he has commitments to main and thus, has to continue on his journey.

  • Man, I had an answer to this. – Benjamin Jan 25 '17 at 1:20
  • I don't see how any of this except the first quote is relevant – CHEESE Jan 25 '17 at 1:28
  • @CHEESE Did you read my comment above? "That's the basic essence of the answer, but it's undescriptive evidence by itself and doesn't lend itself to more complex literary discussion." – fi12 Jan 25 '17 at 1:30
  • @fi12 I read the comment; however, the comment does not explain how the next few quotes are relevant. The narrator could have wondrous appreciation and commitments regardless of why he/she stopped by the woods. – CHEESE Jan 25 '17 at 1:32
  • @CHEESE That's a valid point, but in my opinion, the following quotes provide support for the original. – fi12 Jan 25 '17 at 1:49

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