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 of 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.