A few evenings ago, I hosted a discussion of Winter Poetry at my local library. While I was selecting the poems to include, my wife said I had to pick Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening,” because… well, it’s THE winter poem. But that was why I didn’t want to include it; I dismissed as too over-exposed, too well-traveled (like the path in that other over-exposed Frost poem).
I compromised by pairing “Stopping by Woods” with a lesser-known Frost poem, “Dust of Snow.” At the time, my motivation for linking the two began and ended with the fact that they both had “snow” in the title.
In the end, I’m glad I listened to my wife, because it turns out I didn’t know “Stopping by Woods” as well as I thought. And I’m glad I juxtaposed it with “Dust of Snow,” because both poems seem to share a similar theme. One illuminates the other.
Let’s tackle “Stopping by Woods” first. And even though even my dad could probably recite twenty percent of it, here it is anyway,,,
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.
I’ve always believed that the poem is about a man contemplating suicide. (That said, in the past, I’ve asked my students to convince me the poem is about Santa Claus, I swear, if you consider the “darkest evening of the year” and the “harness bells” and the “promises to keep”… well, a pretty convincing case can be made.)
Now, if you look at the poem as a man contemplating suicide, the “darkest evening of the year” is not literal but figurative. He’s gone to a dark place. (As an aside: as an astute reader from my discussion group pointed out, the “darkest evening of the year” does not have to be the Winter Solstice. That would be the longest evening of the year, but not necessarily the darkest. Never considered that before…)
The “suicide” reading becomes more clear when you consider the geography of the poem. So, our narrator is stopping “by” the woods. Now, he’s not IN the woods; he’s on the outskirts. But the woods are definitely calling to him; he thinks they’re “lovely.” In this interpretation, the woods– which are empty, frozen, dark, deep– represent death.
Somewhere else, maybe behind the narrator, is the “village.” To me, that represents his life, with all of its problems, responsibilities, obligations– his “promises to keep,” in other words, whatever has made him so depressed. If he goes into the woods, he’ll never have to return to the village. Or, to put another way: if he chooses death, he’ll never have to face those “promises” again.
Suddenly, something snaps him out of this trance: the harness bells. He realizes he has “miles to go” before he sleeps– and in this case, the “sleep” is the permanent kind. At the end of the poem, he is leaning toward life; he’s choosing the “miles” before the “sleep.” For the moment, at least.
Now, keep all that in mind as you consider the one-sentence poem “Dust of Snow”…
Pretty simple: a bird in a tree shakes snow down on some unsuspecting dude. But naturally it’s a “more than meets the eye” thing. (Who would have guessed, right?)
The first stanza paints a pretty grim picture: crows always have bad connotations, as does hemlock. (Socrates, for example, was executed via a cup of poison hemlock.) And let’s face it: getting snow knocked down on you is rarely thrilling..
But these three negatives somehow add up to a positive in the second stanza. The “dust of snow” is akin to a baptism; it cleanses him. We don’t know what was going on before, what he regretted or “rued,” but for some reason, this event ironically gave him a “change of mood.”
And that, right there, is what links the two poems. Both poems have to do with a small, seemingly insignificant event that triggers a serendipitous “change of mood.” So, in “Dust of Snow,” this brief cascade of snow “saved” his day. And in “Stopping by Woods,” the horse shaking his harness bells may have actually “saved” the narrator’s life, in that it broke him out of his depressive spell.
If you think about, small things do have the power to change our moods. One day, you might be feeling great, until a parking ticket brings you down. Or you may be bummed out, and then a co-worker says something that strikes you funny, or you hear a song on the radio that speaks to you. or maybe someone offers you a Twizzler– and that simple event turns things around.
Only I’m not sure the “Stopping by Woods” guy is completely turned around. :Yes, he’s turning away from the dark woods in the final stanza… but I don’t really get the sense he’s giddy about it. The woods are still “lovely” to him, after all. And then there’s the final “miles to go before I sleep” business. I never understood why Frost repeats himself, but I wonder if the repetition could suggest a sense of resignation, a sense of “oh, well.” After all, the “promises to keep” haven’t gone away; he still has to face them.
So, yes, with the help of the folks who shows up for the poetry reading, I gained some new insights about these two poems. But perhaps more importantly I learned/ re-learned a few other things as well…
- Just because you think you know something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it another look.“(And I do know that I am paraphrasing John Keating from Dead Poets Society: “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way.”)
- Juxtaposing two texts often helps to illuminate both.
- Art is meant to be shared. Something great usually happens when you interesting and interested people start sharing ideas.
Now I’m going to warp this up, as I have “miles to go before I sleep” as well. (Actually, I’m just going to watch re-runs of The Office with my family. Don’t suppose there’s a Frost poem about that…)