Norman Rosenthal, MD

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  • Jun, 15, 2021

robert frost woods meaning

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening | Analysis, Meaning, & Summary

Here is the 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.

And for those of you who might like to hear how it sounds when somebody else recites it, my son Josh offered to record it when we were out walking together in the snow. Here is his rendition:

Analysis | What makes Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening , by Robert Frost such a great favorite?

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is certainly pleasant to read, but what makes it such a great favorite? Experts routinely list it as one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, and it is also popular with the general public. For example, it came in at number 31 in a 1995 survey of Britain’s favorite poems. How can we understand its appeal?

On the surface, the poem may seem simple. In four short stanzas of four lines each Frost tells the story of a man riding through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage on a snowy evening. He stops and stands by the roadside and looks at the snow falling into the woods. Then he decides to get back into the carriage and head on to his destination. In other words, not much happens – or so it seems.

The poem is readily accessible; all its words would be easily understood by the average high school student. There is something comforting about the absence of fancy language. It makes you feel as though a friend or neighbor is talking to you. The meter (four iambic feet per line, each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) seems to echo the rhythm of the horse’s hoof steps as he makes his way along the country road. The rhyme scheme is simple but captivating (AABA; BBCB, CCDC; DDDD), and the language, though spare, is gorgeous. Consider the poet’s description of what he hears apart from his horse’s harness bells:

The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

In just two lines Frost conveys to us the sound and feel of the wind and goose feather snowflakes. Those lines bring us to the last stanza where a shift occurs. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening | Meaning  (In my opinion)

It is this last stanza that holds the key to the life-enhancing and healing powers of the poem. At one level, the poet’s dilemma is common to all of us. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” suggests that he would like to rest there awhile, but he needs to move on. It is the type of situation we routinely encounter in everyday life. For example, we may be feeling comfort or joy in a situation (whether it is lying in bed after a night’s sleep, visiting with friends or immersed in a book or movie), when we realize that we need to be somewhere else or do something else and must therefore shift gears. The poet is in the process of deciding to make such a shift, albeit in more interesting circumstances than those I have listed.

But there is much more going on in this stanza than a simple gear shift. What is the connection between its first and second line? What is the relationship between the woods being “lovely, dark and deep” and the promises the poet has to keep? Something is going on in the poet’s mind that is implied but not stated. So the reader is left to fill in the gap, and it is this mystery, I believe, that draws us back again and again to the poem and makes it endlessly fascinating. We will never know what is going on in the poet’s mind that connects the woods to his awareness that he needs to move on, so our interpretation is something of a Rorschach Test. There must surely be different interpretations, all perhaps equally valid. But let me offer mine as a psychotherapist, which relates to our theme that poetry is a tool for understanding suffering and for healing.

A psychotherapist routinely builds mental models of what may be going on in the patient’s mind, which help move the therapy forwards. Such models often include things left unsaid, perhaps even outside the patient’s awareness. Let us suppose for a moment that someone in therapy were to say to me: “I was riding along in my horse-drawn carriage the other night when suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, I stopped, climbed out and looked into the dark woods as the snow was falling. My little horse seemed to sense that there was something wrong because I don’t usually stop in the middle of nowhere without a farmhouse near. I was very tired, but I kept staring into the distance as the woods filled up with snow, thinking, ‘These woods are lovely, dark and deep.’” How would I respond to such a person? I would probably ask, “Did you perhaps wish to lie down and fall asleep in those woods and let the snow cover you?” And I would not be surprised to hear, “That thought did cross my mind.” And then I would ask, “So, what stopped you from lying down there and letting the snow bury you?” And the answer might be, “I said to myself:

…… I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Summary

Story: drunk and depressed.

A friend told me a story about her father who in later life developed an alcohol problem, and was often drunk, especially towards the end of the day. On one occasion, drunk and depressed, he went walking into the woods on a snowy evening, tripped over a log and landed on the snow-covered ground. He thought to himself how peaceful it would be to just lie there and let the snow cover him. The cold numbed him and at that moment he felt as though there would be no suffering in ending his life that way. Then he remembered that he had promised to pay for his granddaughter’s college education, and the thought bothered him. If he allowed himself to get buried, who would take care of her? She was such a clever girl, and it was important that she reach her potential. And how could that happen without his help? Nobody else in the family had the means to cover her tuition. That was when he hauled himself up off the ground and slowly lumbered back to the house, took off his wet clothes, lay down on the couch and fell into a deep sleep. He couldn’t end his life, not while he had promises to keep.

We all need to be needed

A few years ago the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled, “Behind Our Anxiety: The Fear of Being Unneeded.” They pointed out the paradox that nowadays many people in the world’s richest nations are plagued by anger, discontent and anxiety about the future. To explain this paradox they referenced data pointing out that older people who didn’t feel useful to others were three times as susceptible to early death than those who felt useful. Their conclusion: “We all need to be needed.” When you promise something to someone, you recognize that the person needs you in some way. You feel needed, if only to fulfill the promise. Perhaps that is how the poet felt when he was standing and staring into those dark woods. He had promises to keep, he was needed, so he’d better get a move on.

That brings me back to the suicidal woman I mentioned at the beginning. She was brilliant, accomplished, financially secure, yet felt as though she had no reason to go on living. I had pointed out to her everything she had to live for, which failed to put the smallest dent in her convictions. So I resorted to a psychiatrist’s Hail Mary: would she contract with me that she would let me know in real time if she were feeling actively suicidal and give me the chance to see if together we could make a plan to prevent her from taking her life. She responded with a wry smile, and pointed out something that had many times occurred to me about the apparent absurdity of the so-called “suicide contract.”

Unwritten but implied?

I wonder if much of what has made Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening so dearly loved and meaningful to generations is unwritten but implied. Frost has left to our imagination what transpires in the poet’s mind in that shift between “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” and “But I have promises to keep.” The suggestion I offered above is of course only one of many possible interpretations, which comes from the vantage point of a therapist. No doubt there are many other scenarios the reader can conjure up to fill that space. But the central elements are likely to be there: the weariness, the struggle to carry on, the promises that bind us to those who need us, that bind us to life; the pain of exhaustion, and our profound need for sleep.

Related Reading

  • Love After Love by Derek Walcott: Reading & Commentary
  • Daffodils By William Wordsworth

For additional analysis on this poem please see, Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost | How the Poet Achieves His Effect

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20 Replies to “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening | Analysis, Meaning, & Summary”

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This wonderful, deceptively simple poem which I learned in high school, has always conjured the problem of going on… despite fatigue, despite despair. And yes, promises to keep can be an answer. So can persistence:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

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Nice presentation and explanation. This reminds me of another poem by Robert Frost—The Road Not Taken—where he seems to regret not being able to take both paths in a woods, but settles on the one less taken, which did make all the difference in his life. Perhaps he was metaphorically describing his decision to become a poet. He had chosen the path less taken in life. And we’re glad he did!

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

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That’s not actually what the poem says. At the beginning, the speaker says there is no difference between the two roads. He is speaking in the present about the assertion of a future self. In other words, he knows that future self must make meaning where there actually is none. So the poem is about imposing an order where there is none. The point is, that we must make this order. The tenses tell you this. The poem says, in fact, the opposite of what everyone thinks it says.

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Stopping by Woods… has always conjured a picture of a busy, tired country doctor stopping in his rounds to relish moments of silence and beauty before continuing on his rounds …miles to go and promises to keep.

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I like that. Thank you. ~

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British Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge are often said to have introduced great consolation poems into British poetry. One of my favorites is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison.” At first, Coleridge is feeling very sorry for himself because, thanks to a scolding injury accidentally inflicted on him by his wife, he is deprived of a beautiful walk in the countryside with friends. As the poem opens, he is truly down in the dumps, psychologically speaking, but thanks to the healing powers of memory, imagination, and nature (nature that immediately surrounds him and nature that he imagines his friends enjoying on their walk), he is able to uplift his spirits into a condition of harmony, peacefulness, and tranquillity with the universe. I always feel as if the poem’s last lines anticipate the Green Movement, perhaps. Enjoy! Also, thanks for this blog, Dr. Norman, and I wish you much consolation!

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You have enriched my understanding of the poem and also given me more to think about

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I truly love how poetry breaks through emotions so succinctly. Thank you for sharing, not only the poem but your analogy. Promises and purpose give meaning to one’s life.💙💚💜

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I love this poem because it is the feeling we all have and some are just not brave enough to say. I think he did not choose to leave the woods but left because he saw no other way. He has accepted that life must go on and it will not get better. But he is honorable enough to fulfill his promises and duties to others. Its sad that there are such good people but are never recognized. They are called depressed or weird. Or unmotivated. Loners. But on the other hand they are strong enough to go through the misery of life for others to reap all his benefits. He is clearly not living for himself but as a sacrifice for others. Love this poem.

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Symbols of death: snow, frozen lake, dark, evening. The poet is clearly drawn to the possibility of the peace of death. He is considering, and very attracted to suicide. But despite his longing, he chooses to continue on his trudging way in life; he has too many obligations which he feels he must fulfill before he can give in to temptation and end it all.

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Beautiful poem 💖 poem says ..move on to keep your promises …before u rest

Perhaps, even after “rest”.

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Why does everyone assume suicidal thoughts from this poem? Can’t he just be museing about how peaceful it is and after some enjoyment of the scene, realizes he has other things to tend to, so he moves on.

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I can’t see any reference to the first verse in these fascinating comments. I have always read those opening lines literally, with a real owner who would not see him stopping there. Someone suggested to me yesterday that the house is the village church and God is clearly the owner of the woods. In all these years, that had never occurred to me. If it was God, He would have seen him stopping there. The idea on which the poem concludes is that he must get on with his life, rather than go into the dark. I never read it like that either. I have always been mesmerized by the almost perfect beauty of every line in this poem, but I have read it as more deeply mysterious, a brilliant ‘Rorschach’ test, as suggested above. The ‘promises to keep’ can mean so many different things. It strikes me that the resonance in the repetition of ‘and miles to go before I sleep’, can mean either the sleep of death or the deep rest at the end of a mysterious mission. It could mean either or both, I think. All in all, one of the truly great poems of the 20th century.

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Thanks Such a beautiful and consoling poem There is a blessing in every burden or promise Ironic how so many of us seek to live lives free of them when they are the only thing that gives our lives meaning

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Quite a beautiful interpretation, doctor. I have loved this poem since I was a child, and was always puzzled when people said it was somehow about death, Now I understand.

To me, the poem is simply about the promises we all have to keep and how they sometimes conflict with pausing to fully appreciate the beautiful aspects of life and the world. And the alliteration! “The only other sounds the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.” Wow!

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I think the analysis does not go far enough. After an issue with a college professor over the meaning of the poem, I was able to contact Frost;s daughter. I had written that in the rat-race world, sometimes it is necessary to stop and smell the roses, or in the winter, stop and watch the snow fall, before returning to a hectic life. I failed the essay, but his daughter confirmed that my analysis was more descriptive of her father than the prof. Just for comparison, the prof called Frost a pervert, explaining that Frost had used the word “queer” while describing a stop while he was looking at the south end of a northbound horse. He was obviously into bestiality. I learned to give the prof what he expected, but Frost is still one of my favorite poets.

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I think your interpretation is well thought out and very fitting to the context of your patient’s experience. Being someone who has fought depression and suicidal thoughts on and off throughout the years, this poem has always made me feel on the one hand “understood” and on the other gave me a bit of strength, or call it hope, to carry on … just a bit longer. Thank you for sharing.

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Dr. Norman Rosenthal

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    On the surface, the poem may seem simple. In four short stanzas of four lines each Frost tells the story of a man riding through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage on a snowy evening. He stops and stands by the roadside and looks at the snow falling into the woods. Then he decides to get back into the carriage and head on to his destination.