On this day in 1923, Robert Frost published his most famous poem, “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.”
Several interesting stories surround this poem. Frost once claimed to have dashed it off at one sitting, but several drafts of the poem survive. He told an admirer once that the poem was rooted in his own experience of being in the woods, alone on Dec. 22, dispirited because he wouldn’t be able to buy his children any Christmas presents that year. Frost’s daughter, Lesley, accepts this story, but perhaps we should not: by the time Frost told this story, he was nationally-famous, and noted for embellishing his circumstances, even at the expense of other poets. Another possibly apocryphal story may be closer to the mark: the one that says Frost repeated the last line of the poem because he couldn’t think of anything else to write. That, I think we may believe. Add to it, however, the power of repetition in poetry, a quality poets have been aware of since the ancient Greeks. I think, on balance, that Frost merely followed his instincts: the first use of the line ties the poem securely to the literal world of the farmer hurrying back to his family and his obligations; the second suggests the busier, longer journey of life itself before our final sleep.
Frost was dedicated to both meter and rhyme. Not to use either one was, to him, “like playing tennis without the net.” His genius was to use those rhymes unobtrusively within a roughly iambic line that approximated natural human speech–a very difficult thing to do. Like all great poets, Frost learned the rules of rhyme and meter well enough to break them when the occasion demanded it. Here, for instance, the rhyme scheme is aaba / bbcb / ccdc / dddd, a scheme that allows Frost both the flexibility to vary his rhymes and to hammer on one in the final stanza. How does he repeat that rhyme in the last stanza without driving us crazy with it? Look to the first line of that last stanza and the caesura (the pause) within the line, marked by the comma. The comma in that position slows us down in the reading. It also forces us to read the line in a different way from the way we might want to: Frost did not write, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”–a string of adjectives. He wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep–forcing us to pause after “lovely” and group “dark and deep” together in our thought, and pause again on the comma after “deep” to consider the meaning of those two words. I’ve always admired Frost’s subtlety in calling our attention to “dark and deep” in this way. The pauses allow him to pick up the pace slightly in the final three line (just like the farmer picks up the pace to get home) and allows him to use the “d” rhyme (which we’ve already heard softly in”sweep”) more than once and almost without our noticing because he’s got us thinking about the attractions of the dark, the mystery of the woods, and the meaning of those final two lines.