There are a few structural items to note about the poem:
- The only 3-syllable word in the entire poem is “promises”, which in itself emphasizes Frost’s core message of fidelity to one’s commitments;
- The tone is progressive: certain syllables are soft at the beginning (w and th, and double ll); then the tone strengthens in the middle (z, g, and qu); and ends up with harsher consonants at the end (k, b, and p). This progression is significant to the overall message, as we will see;
- The meter of the poem (Iambic tetrameter) is perfectly suited to the sentiment: it is short and compact to express a simple message yet perfectly rhythmic and lyrical at the same time to give a sense of meditativeness;
- The rhymes are synchronized in a kind of chain-link fashion. The third verse in each stanza (as noted by the red highlighted words in the poem above) ends with a word that rhymes with and points to the first verse of the following stanza;
- Only the final stanza breaks this pattern; there is no other stanza for it to link it to, and the repetition of the last two lines is used to add emphasis to the message;
- When he repeats the final line, we almost get a sense of Frost waking up out of a reverie about the beauty he experiences and reminding himself of the burden he must carry for others (actually the horse reminds him!)
Dark wood / Dark evening
Perhaps Frost was harkening back to the medieval poet Dante, who began his epic poem Inferno with the image of finding himself lost in a dark wood. For Dante the forest symbolized being caught in the middle age of life tangled in the thicket of its many crises. Here also, the dark wood also triggers a feeling of the heavy burden of human responsibility that the protagonist carries and maybe a sense of depression at his failure at the market. Like Dante, the deep wood sends Frost deeper into his soul where he finds a longing for an undying world of peace liberated from the burdens and darkness of this world. The longer he contemplates the dark wood, however, the more he sees its intrinsic beauty. By the end of the poem he is calling it “lovely, dark and deep” as if “dark” has lost its menace and is now an attribute of its beauty.
Snow / Wind
In that context of inner longing, the white snow (falling majestically in “downy flakes”) contrasts beautifully with the menacing wood. Wind usually symbolizes the chaotic forces of the world, but this one is an “easy wind” coming off a starkly beautiful frozen lake, seeming to refresh him as he contemplates the snowfall. The contrasting images of light vs dark, heaviness vs lightness, frustration vs refreshment are the two poles of human existence: we live in this tainted world but are destined for another world where, as the Bible says, “every tear will be wiped away” (Revelation 21:4).
Farmhouse / Village
The human community also enters into Frost’s reverie, although indirectly: the man who owns the property, his home in the village, the sleeping world are all far away. The English Renaissance poet John Donne, wrote that “no man is an island,” but here Frost seems to feel his island-like separation from the rest of humanity as he finds himself in the middle of nowhere struggling alone with his frustration and longing.
The Little Horse and the Contrast of Natures
In my view, the little horse is the critical symbol of this poem. The horse represents the vast world of nature, and his startled reaction to the man stopping in the middle of a journey contrasts nicely with the man’s deeper capacity for wonder and spirit.
Whereas the man is struck by the beauty of the scene, the horse is blind to it. The animal is not subject to a burst of inspiration like the human; he doesn’t wonder at the transcendent.
Rather, the horse remains on task. He is a beast of burden, a creature of the world without the depth of soul that a human being enjoys as a natural endowment. He represents work and the raw, inexorable forces of nature and duty that stop for no man.
Yet, the animal is not a machine either. Frost personifies him in a delightful way: the horse “thinks”, “asks”, and “shakes” his harness bells as if seeking to understand something his nature can’t quite comprehend. His existential limitations symbolize the one pole of human existence – the fleshly – which man cannot escape but which he can transcend in a way the horse cannot.
In other words, man has an inner capacity the animal lacks. The little horse by his very deprivation teaches us what a gift the human soul is.
The beast must follow his nature and work. There is no mystery in his world. The human, on the other hand, can stop and wonder at the beauty he sees. He also must choose to work and to do so for transcendent motives (keeping his “promises”), which are refinements of human nature over animal nature.
Universal Human Experience
Finally, the harness bells.
Like St. Peter on the top of Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration, the farmer wanted to stay on the summit of his experience of deep beauty, but the horse won’t let him. The bells ring, they demand, they call. They symbolize, of course, the wake-up call that besets every person through the press of human responsibilities. If there is anything that can be called a universal human experience, it is the inflexible urgency of human commitments.
Again, the deep capacity of the human soul dominates the message: the man realistically faces all the miles he must go before he sleeps, but he chooses to travel them for the sake of his loved ones because he is not just a workhorse. He is a husband and father, a man of transcendent values. More importantly, he does so in the hope of a better world that awaits him – when his work is finally finished.
Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (1994), Great American Poets Series: Robert Frost (1986); Poem text in public domain at Wikipedia: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”; Photo of Robert Frost, Walter Albertin, World Telegram, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; all other images courtesy of Pixabay.
Human problems don’t go away by wishful thinking. Frost’s poem is about the mature man who takes the knotty responsibilities of raising a family squarely on his shoulders and embraces them again after finding inspiration in an experience of beauty.
This pattern is reproducible in our lives too. We cannot avoid the press of duty, but we can fortify ourselves for it by deepening our soul’s capacity to see it all in perspective. Analogously, we “see the forest for the trees” only when we step back from the urgency of life’s crises and immerse ourselves in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness for a while.
This is nothing new to the Church, which has given humanity an endowment of transcendent gifts like no other. Perhaps today you can take time out to listen to some inspirational music, read an engaging story, go to a museum or to a performance of wholesome art, etc.
Above all, prayer strengthens the human spirit, and we can do that at any time.