Day 12: Robert Frost’s Classic Poem and What You Might Have Missed

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

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.

It seems as if everyone who thinks about Robert Frost thinks of him as misunderstood.

“The regular ways of looking at Frost’s poetry,” the poet Randall Jarrell wrote in 1953, “are grotesque simplifications, distortions, falsifications.” In 1959, at the poet’s 85th birthday dinner, Lionel Trilling described Frost as “terrifying” — “my Frost is not the Frost I seem to perceive existing in the minds of so many of his admirers.” Their Frost, he claimed, was a voice of “democratic simplicity.”

There is a kind of a crystalline simplicity to much of Frost’s work. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which he wrote in 1923 and later named as his own favorite poem, has a glowing, pristine quality, a snow-globe perfection — Jarrell once said you could not help but memorize it — that makes it appealing to children, and last Christmas my five-year-old niece recited it in her tiny voice, to everyone’s delight. The poem belongs to the microgenre of verse and songs about riding (sleighs, horses) through inclement weather, alongside jolly examples like “Jingle Bells” and “Over the River and Through the Wood.”

Yet it’s also, like so many holiday poems that aren’t explicitly for children, quite melancholy. (The first line of a section of W.H. Auden’s “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” says it all: “Well, so that is that.”) Those, like Trilling, who hold that their Frost is terrifying will have no trouble finding something to fear in it, in the cold dark forest that beckons as death might.

Some were offended by Trilling’s remarks, but Frost wasn’t. “No sweeter music can come to my ears,” he wrote in a letter, “than the clash of arms over my dead body,” suggesting he wished to be misunderstood — or that there was no correct understanding of his work, because he had no stable intention.