Friday, August 6, 2010

Pure Poetry: 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.

Whose poem this is I think you know: it's Robert Frost's. It is, to my way of thinking, a perfect poem. Like music, considered by Schopenhauer and Valery to be the perfect art form because it is about itself and nothing else, this poem is about nothing but itself. Maybe that's why people can't let it alone; what does it mean? they ask. Why does Frost repeat that last line? Is he really talking about death? What about those promises he says he has to keep? 

Silly questions. 

Each stanza has exactly four beats. Three of them follow the same rhyme scheme, aaba, with the word ending the third line being the dominant rhyme in the next verse; the last stanza repeats the same rhyme four times, picking up on the word "sweep" at the end of the third line in the previous stanza. Frost has created a rhyme pattern without end, yet he must end it. How can he solve this problem and at the same time preserve the perfection of the poem? Simple: by repeating the last line.

The woods are beautiful but he can't stay there and admire them, much as he might like to, for several reasons, one of which is obvious but unstated: it would take a long time to watch them fill up with snow and anyone who does that sort of thing in midwinter is likely to freeze to death, a fate  in which he shows no interest. (Though I have to admit that the speaker's interest in the depth and darkness of the woods is slightly and momentarily ambiguous.) He is not out there on the darkest night of the year for the fun of it. He is on his way someplace for reasons that we don't need to know, aside from the fact that like anyone else he may have promised to be there at a certain time; which reminds him that, like anyone else, he has made other promises as well. And that's absolutely all there is to it—aside from the fact that is a beautiful and deceptively simple poem. Why 'deceptively'? Because Frost, knowing his readers better than they know themselves, and knowing that they are never satisfied with perfect simplicity and are forever clutching at allegory, has quietly and perhaps, ironically, given them something to clutch at.

1 comment:

  1. Strange as it may seem, I am in total agreement with you about this poem, Piers.