On rare occasion a poem will contain the qualities that make it as near to perfect as we can imagine. Feasible within a limitless set of themes and subject matter, if the poet’s heart and mind are turning in sync is it not then possible that the result will be a superior poem, whether one about trout fishing, refrigerator mechanics or the failure of love? Whatever the circumstances or subject matter, the quality of a poem will always depend upon the poet’s understanding of both his subject and his craft. Many will say that Robert Frost achieved this ‘near perfection’ in more than a few of his poems. And after all, it isn’t easy to win four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry with work that is less than superior.
On March 7, 1923 Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favorite of his own poems, and one he called ‘my best bid for remembrance.’ Though it is a poem about winter, Frost wrote the poem on a warm morning in the middle of June. On one occasion he said that it was the work of just a few minutes, almost without lifting his pen off the page. Describing the process he said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.” Despite the claim, an early draft of the poem shows clearly that it was reworked several times.
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.
Frost himself told the story this way: He wrote the poem based on an experience he had one Christmas season. At the time he was troubled that he and his wife wouldn’t be able to afford Christmas presents for the children. He wasn’t a successful farmer, but scrounged up some produce from their farm, hitched up his horse and took a wagon into town to try and sell enough produce to buy some gifts. He was unable to sell a single thing. As evening came it began to snow and he headed home. Along the way he was overwhelmed with the shame of telling his family about his failure, and as if sensing his mood, the horse stopped. Frost sat on his wagon in the falling snow and cried like a baby. Eventually, the horse jingled its bells, and Frost collected himself and continued the ride back home to his family. He later told his daughter: “A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time.”
Returning to the idea of how Frost wrote the poem, a few minutes examination of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” reveals a work that defies any claim to quick, uninterrupted composition. As a contemplation on escape and responsibility, the poem is a combination of language, sound and rhythm in which words are like actors in a drama. In the technical sense, the poem is a series of rhymed couplets in iambic tetrameter, sixteen lines divided into four lines with alternating rhymes. Taking the craft one step farther, Frost wrote each of the poem’s sixteen lines in precisely eight syllables. As example, look at the opening and closing lines:
Whose / woods / these / are / I / think / I / know
And / miles / to / go/ be / fore / I / sleep
Choose any of the poem’s sixteen lines and the syllable count will be eight. With everything else this is quite a feat.
Poetry is writing that cries to be read aloud and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” couldn’t be a better example.