and miles to go before i sleep

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
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.

Summary

On the surface, this poem is simplicity itself. The speaker is stopping by some woods on a snowy evening. He or she takes in the lovely scene in near-silence, is tempted to stay longer, but acknowledges the pull of obligations and the considerable distance yet to be traveled before he or she can rest for the night.

Like the woods it describes, the poem is lovely but entices us with dark depths–of interpretation. It stands alone and beautiful, the account of a man stopping by woods on a snowy evening.

The basic conflict in the poem, resolved in the last stanza, is between an attraction toward the woods and the pull of responsibility outside of the woods. Woods are sometimes a symbol for wildness, madness, the pre-rational, the looming irrational. But these woods do not seem particularly wild. They are someone’s woods, someone’s in particular–the owner lives in the village. But that owner is in the village on this, the darkest evening of the year–so would any sensible person be. That is where the division seems to lie, between the village (or “society,” “civilization,” “duty,” “sensibility,” “responsibility”) and the woods (that which is beyond the borders of the village and all it represents). If the woods are not particularly wicked, they still possess the seed of the irrational; and they are, at night, dark–with all the varied connotations of darkness.

Part of what is irrational about the woods is their attraction. They are restful, seductive, lovely, dark, and deep–like deep sleep, like oblivion. Snow falls in downy flakes, like a blanket to lie under and be covered by. And here is where many readers hear dark undertones to this lyric. To rest too long while snow falls could be to lose one’s way, to lose the path, to freeze and die. To be lulled to sleep could be truly dangerous.

The woods sit on the edge of civilization; one way or another, they draw the speaker away from it (and its promises, its good sense). “Society” would condemn stopping here in the dark, in the snow–it is ill advised. The speaker ascribes society’s reproach to the horse, which may seem, at first, a bit odd. But the horse is a domesticated part of the civilized order of things; it is the nearest thing to society’s agent at this place and time. And having the horse reprove the speaker (even if only in the speaker’s imagination) helps highlight several uniquely human features of the speaker’s dilemma.

One is the regard for beauty (often flying in the face of practical concern or the survival instinct); another is the attraction to danger, the unknown, the dark mystery; and the third–perhaps related but distinct–is the possibility of the death wish, of suicide.

Not that we must return too often to that darkest interpretation of the poem. Beauty alone is a sufficient siren; a sufficient protection against her seduction is an unwillingness to give up on society despite the responsibilities it imposes. The line “And miles to go before I sleep” need not imply burden alone; perhaps the ride home will be lovely, too.

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