Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Monday, January 18, 2016

Frost—Lovely, Dark and Deep—An Explication

Frost—Lovely, Dark and Deep
by Tim McMullen

A critical analysis and explication of the poem, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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.

At first reading, the circumstances of “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” seem highly uneventful. A man traveling down a road stops by woods. There is nothing else around, and he is struck by the beauty of the scene. Though inclined to stay, he realizes he has commitments and must proceed on. We might suggest that the conflict is between duty and beauty, or “work before (or instead of) pleasure.” This characterization, however, fails to account for the emotive penetrability of the poem. This poem touches the reader, almost unconsciously, and suggests somehow that there is something going on: some deep tension or struggle that, though not readily explainable, is nevertheless imposing and significant.
Much of this affective response comes from two sources: one, the tone and mood of the poem; the other, the specific images employed. Frost, in the midst of mood, hides the conflict of his images. The initial picture one gets is that of beauty, a snowy woodland scene; it is unblemished by farmhouse or farmer, nature in its pristine state. “The woods are lovely...”— we can almost hear him sigh after each word, dark and deep. He must, however, move on; he cannot remain in this idyllic locale.
At this point we might identify the significance of the poem as the conflict between man and nature. Nature is seen in the symbols of the woods, the snow, the lake, the wind. The symbols which set man apart from nature are houses, village, farmhouses, reins of the horse (which are man-made) and promises (which are also man-made). Man is a part of Nature; that is, he is part of the organic whole. He is born into nature in its undifferentiated whole, but as he becomes Man, he is severed from the rest of Nature. By recognizing or experiencing his uniqueness, he becomes “wholly other” than the rest of nature. One of the attributes of the uniqueness of man is that he cannot return to his natural beginnings. Notice that he lies between the woods. He may go into them in a spatial sense, but he cannot be part of them in a substantial sense. He must, therefore, remain with his promises to men (Man) and exist outside nature. He has miles to go, and these must be in Man's world.
(Note: I recently read an article on Frost's poem by Earl Daniels, in The Creative Reader, by Stallman and Daniels, on Page 932. His comments, I think, are so significant that I must include them here. Daniels begins with a paraphrase very close to the one I offered in the beginning, identifies this as a real experience, then further states:

“…[P]oetry, reduced to its simplest, is only experience...Experience moved the poet; he enjoyed it, and wanted to put it down on paper, as experience and nothing else [my italics] partly because writing is a self-contained action which is fun for the writer, partly because he wanted the reader to enjoy the experience with him. If we are to learn to read, we must begin with elemental, irreduceable facts [mine also] like this” (P. 934).

I find this definition of the creative process and the creative goal as appalling as it is useless. Daniels' was responding to the attempt to find philosophica1 or intellectual meaning in Frost's poem. It is a call to pure literalism; in his use of experience, he denies both the poet and the reader any derivable insight, but deals specifically with the phenomena. He further implies that if an author meant his work to have any social or philosophical meaning, it would be obvious and explicit. He gives as examples of such writers Milton and Lucretius. I don't feel the need to refute this absurd claim, but merely to ask the holder of this view to point to any great poet that can be thoroughly entombed in this Procrustean Bed. I offered this note in order that I may continue examining the intricacies of the poem, because, using Daniels' criteria, I had completed my only legitimate exegesis of the poem in the very beginning.)
We have, then, suggested two levels on which the poem may be read, but neither of these fully explains the emotive quality of the work. This limitation occurs because, as yet, there has been no analysis of the specific images that lend the feeling of depth. Several of the symbols were enumerated before in differentiating between nature and man. These images when viewed deeper may illumine the whole.
Woods are the first image we see; they are a part of nature, and the image is one of life. By the fourth line, however, we find that the scene is not the exultation of life, but the intrusion of death through the winter and the snowfall. Rather than joyful seclusion, there is a hint of desolation: the village is far from this place; there are no farmhouses, farmers or other people; the only sound other than the sleigh bells is the whisper of the wind. Reinforcing the specter of death is the frozen lake. What is more barren?
Further, water is, like nature, usually a symbol for life: the endless flow of the river, or the life-giving moisture that is essential to existence; but frozen lake water is useless; it is a complete denial of the life water brings. Also, it is “the darkest evening of the year.” Surely, the initial image of a pleasant halt in the woods is negated by this foreboding scene as it now takes shape. It is desolate; the evidence of nature on every side shows the presence of death. Whereas, previously, man would have been an intrusion on the simple, peaceful, scene of life, he is now the only symbol of life. Our use of life is the same as when we say, “there's no sign of life.” Life means human life, and nature is distinguished from it.
We obviously recognize, though, that the tone and feeling of the man (and the poem) is not of dread and repulsion but rather of fascination and attraction. Somehow, the peace and the void of death are especially alluring, and the sighs of “dark” and “deep” are even more real than when directed merely at the virgin beauty of the woods. Now, they emphasize the longing for the peace and rest of death: the woods are lovely, dark and deep. And, of course, the final image of repose is the sleep of the last line. The first sleep is a transitory state from which we will awaken, but the last line is a final sleep, and sleep related directly to deep, indeed the last and deepest sleep of all.
Despite the presence and the lure of death, the man does not acquiesce to its inducement; he recognizes that he will sleep, but that sleep is in the future. At present, he has a responsibility to life; that is his promise. It is a pact to fulfill the nature of man, which includes a predisposition to keep on living. These images of life and death are the symbols which develop the tensions found in the poem. They are not, however, a cohesive and complete explanation; we still require a final interpretation in order to understand the poem as a unified whole.
To apprehend the unity and to include all the symbols, we must make an even deeper and more extensive study. The setting for the poem now is not the roadside wood but the mind of man. “Whose woods these are I think I know” utilizes woods to indicate thoughts of death. “His house is in the village though” speaks of where man resides; that is, the village (or life) should be the realm of man's thoughts, but they sometimes steal over to contemplate death. The stealth or hiding is implied in “he will not see me….” To rephrase it, the woods are thoughts of death; the speaker is the owner of the woods, but he belongs in the village, not in the snow-filled woods– that is, not with thoughts that are full of death. We have already acknowledged the death symbols in the vacancy of other human life (“no farm houses”); “the woods and frozen lake”; “the darkest evening of the year.” To complete the full concept of the poem, however, we have one more major theme: that of the horse.
If we remember that our present context is within the human being, we can integrate the horse symbol into our schema. To do this we must view the sleigh as a total machine, a single entity; the horse and driver are part of the whole. The driver cannot drive the sleigh without the horse; the horse cannot have direction without the driver. We must, of course, discard the desire to see the horse as just a part of nature; he is too much a part of the integrated whole. The middle two stanzas, one-half of the poem, are directly concerned with the horse. Lines six, seven, and eight explain why he would think it queer to stop; and nine, ten, eleven and twelve explain his desire to go on. Literally, a horse shakes his head not in question, as is ironically assumed, but in apprehension and anxiety from the foreboding desolation of the woods. As for the sleigh as a unit, the horse is seen as the physical impulse or instinctive part of man, biologically disposed toward maintaining life; the driver is the mind of man, the steering intellect, the part of the unit that can contemplate, accept and even desire death.
The life instinct suggests pushing on by pulling at the reigns, that “there is some mistake” in stopping, but the intellect offsets this with listening to the “sweep of easy wind and downy flake.” The sweep of downy flake evokes the image of a shroud being gently laid. What follows is surely the most evocative and intense image in the poem, an image which leads to a peak of emotion and then a swift climax and conclusion. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” is an exquisite image, acute in its conflict. “Lovely” emotes warmth and attractiveness, whereas “dark and deep” woods suggest the gloom and despair of death. The words, due partially to the alliteration, seem almost to echo in the brain, “lovely, dark and deep”!
But he will not sleep yet, the life-force, the insistence of the horse, the will to live, remind him of his solemn obligation to fulfill his role as man. “His house is in the village”; his promise is to life, the village and the company of man. He rejects the isolation of death and thoughts of death and returns to his journey. The journey being an obvious allusion to the “road of life,” he still has miles to go (and time to spend) before he ends his journey and rests; and more places to go (things to do; life to live) before his final sleep.

Submitted to Dr. Philip B. Nordhus, English Professor, English 101, Chico State College (now CSU, Chico) in 1970.

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