On a Snowy Evening
A Poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening ” is a lyric poem. It was first published in the New Republic on March 7, 1923, and republished later that year in a collection of Robert Frost's poems entitled New Hampshire. This collection won Frost a Pulitzer Prize and widespread recognition as an important American writer.
Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” while residing in the village of Franconia in the northwestern corner of New Hampshire. It seems likely that woods near Franconia inspired him to write the poem and that Franconia is the village mentioned in line 2. The time is “the darkest evening of the year.” If by this phrase the speaker/narrator means the longest night of the year—that is, the night with the most hours of darkness—then the day is either December 21 or 22. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs each year on one of those days. The solstice is the moment when the sun is farthest south.
The Observer (Speaker/Persona/Narrator): A person traveling by a horse-drawn wagon (or cart or carriage) on a rural road. The traveler stops to observe snow piling up in woods.
By Robert Frost
Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
His house is in the village though (line 2)Hyperbole
To watch his woods fill up with snowMetaphor
He gives his harness bells a shake,Personification/Metaphor
My little horse must think it queer
The end rhyme in the poem is as follows:
First stanza, aabaInternal Rhyme
Here are examples of internal rhyme in the poem
He will not see me stopping here (line 3)Meaning of the Poem
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” presents one person’s momentary encounter with nature. We do not know whether the speaker (narrator) is a man or a woman. In fact, we know nothing at all about the person except that he or she has been traveling on a country road in a horse-drawn wagon (or cart or carriage) on "the darkest evening of the year."
If by this phrase the speaker/narrator means the longest night of the year—that is, the night with the most hours of darkness–then the day is either December 21 or 22. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs each year on one of those days. The solstice is the moment when the sun is farthest south. However, if by "darkest evening" he means most depressing,
bleakest, or gloomiest, he may be referring to his state of mind.
Perhaps he wishes to lose himself in their silent mystery, away from the routine and regimen of everyday life—at least for a while. Maybe the woods remind him of his childhood, when he watched snow pile up in hopes that it would reach Alpine heights and cancel school and civilization for a day. Or perhaps the woods represent risk, opportunity—something dangerous and uncharted to be explored. It could be, too, that they signify the mysteries of life and the afterlife or that they represent sexual temptation: They are, after all, lovely, dark, and deep.
The traveler might also regard the woods as the nameless, ordinary people who have great beauty within them but are ignored by others. This interpretation recalls a theme in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” in which Gray writes:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,Here the gem in the bottom of the ocean and the flower in the desert symbolize neglected people with much to offer the world if only someone would take time notice them. The woods in Frost’s poem are just as lovely as the flower and just as dark and deep as the cave holding the gem, but civilization pays little heed to the gem, the flower, and the woods.
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Perhaps Frost sees the woods as a symbol of the vanishing wilderness consumed by railroads, highways, cities, shopping centers, parking lots. A man in the village owns the woods now. What will he do with them?
In 1958, poet John Ciardi (1916-1986) suggested in Saturday Review magazine that the woods in Frost's poem symbolize death. He further wrote that the speaker/narrator wants to enter the woods—that is, he wants to die, commit suicide. Frost himself scoffed at this interpretation in public appearances and in private conversations. But is it possible that Frost's subconscious mind was speaking in the poem, revealing thoughts and desires unknown to his conscious mind?
Maybe, in the end, the woods and the snow are what they are: quiet, peaceful, beautiful. Although the traveler wants to stay to look at them, he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.
The poem consists of four stanzas, each with four lines. (A four-line stanza is called a quatrain.) Each line in the poem has eight syllables (or four feet). In each line, the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on. Thus, the poem is in iambic tetrameter. An iamb is a foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A tetrameter is a line of poetry or verse containing four feet. (If you need detailed information on meter, click here.) The following example—the first two lines of the poem–demonstrates the metric scheme. The unstressed syllables are in blue; the stressed are in red capitals. Over each pair of syllables is a number representing the foot. Also, a black vertical line separates the feet.
.......1....... ........2..... .. .......3..............4Author Information
Whose WOODS..|..these ARE..|..I THINK..|..I KNOW
Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, California, where he spent his childhood. In 1885, after his father died of tuberculosis, the Frosts moved to Massachusetts. There, Robert graduated from high school, sharing top honors with a student he would later marry, Elinor White.
Having established his reputation, Frost returned to the United States in 1915 and bought a small farm in Franconia, N.H. To supplement his income from the farm and his poetry, he taught at universities. Between 1916 and 1923, he published two more books of poetry—the second one, New Hampshire, winning the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. He went on to
win three more Pulitzer Prizes and was invited to recite his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Frost died in Boston two years later. One may regard him as among the greatest poets of his generation.
Study Questions and Essay Topics