Down the years, our seasonal solstices have brought out the imagination in a number of creative artists, and American poet Robert Frost was no exception, with the recently passed winter solstice that which brought his pen to paper…
The name Robert Frost is synonymous with the poetry of rural New England. Eminent works spanning from ‘The Road Not Taken’ to ‘Mending Wall’, have secured him a well-deserved place amongst the literary greats. One of Frost’s best-loved poems, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is what he referred to as his ‘best bid for remembrance.’ It captures the intersection between innocence and danger, beauty and the macabre, and life and death – reflecting much of the tragedy that characterised Frost’s personal life.
The poem is at least partially autobiographical, as confirmed by Frost’s granddaughter, Lesley Lee Francis, in You Come Too, My Journey With Robert Frost. One late December night, Frost, a poor farmer and struggling poet, is walking home after an unsuccessful day of trying to sell produce. Frost, realising that he may not even be able to give his children Christmas presents this year, is feeling dejected as he takes in the surrounding beauty. The themes of social status are heightened by the poet’s reference to ownership of the woods, with Frost being aware of his status as an outsider:
Whilst these lines do not engender a sense of surveillance, they do imply that Frost is encroaching on territory that is not entirely his. Although, in the words of Edward Abbey: ’The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone and to no one’, there is a distinction between the ownership of nature and the ownership of land and property. This is a distinction that Frost, as a farmer, would have been only too aware of.
A single line informs us that this is no ordinary winter night – tonight is the winter solstice, also known as yuletide. It occurs on December 21st, and marks the shortest day of the year, after which the nights begin to draw out again. Frost’s reference to ‘The darkest evening of the year’ appears to gesture towards this, although, as with many elements of the poem, we shouldn’t be drawn in by its deceptive simplicity. It’s likely that the darkness Frost refers to here is both a literal reference to the winter solstice, whilst also signalling the poet’s somber state of mind.
This line references the poet’s ‘little horse’ that accompanies him on the arduous journey. As the poet finds himself in a reverie as he takes in the mysterious shapes and sounds of nature and the woods, his horse’s action anthropomorphises the creature. With no other human beings around, the horse’s gesture is the closest to that of human action, as the creature attempts to jolt the poet out of his dreamlike state, elucidating the connection between animals and man.
The final two lines of the poem more explicitly draw out the metaphorical ‘darkness’ that seems to occupy the poet’s mind. There is an overlap between the benignity of nature – the ‘…easy wind and downy flake’ and its fatality. The tranquillity of the woods invites the fatigued poet to sleep – or perhaps into a more permanent form of oblivion: that of death. Arguably the reason that ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ has become one of Frost’s most beloved poems is that, despite the sense of certainty offered by his use of iambic tetrameter and the sweeping, picturesque visions he paints of yuletide, neither the poet himself nor the reader are sure of his intentions until the very end.
Much like Frost’s later poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, which is also infiltrated by a combination of ambiguity and hope, the final line of his poem sees the poet choose the uncertainty of life over the alluring calm of ‘sleep.’
You Come Too, My Journey With Robert Frost, Lesley Lee Francis
Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.