A Terrifying Delight

Following Robert Frost into the depths


A man is riding home in a horse-drawn sleigh on “the darkest evening of the year.” He stops for a while to watch his neighbor’s woods fill with snow. The driver is tempted to drop the reins and let the sleigh slide off into the forest. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” he says. He almost succumbs to their allure—almost but not quite.

These are the events that unfold in Robert Frost’s remarkable poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s one of many poems that readers of Frost, who was born 150 years ago in March, have come to love. It’s frequently quoted and probably still turns up on New England–themed calendars. And though it’s a lovely poem on its surface, as with many of Frost’s best works, there’s more here than immediately meets the eye.

We know Frost as a New England poet and a poet of rural life, but he was born in San Francisco and lived for some time in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, before he moved north to farm in New Hampshire and Vermont. Frost had a difficult time getting his early work published. When he was nearly 40, he finally found an appreciative editor and a group of literary allies (including the unlikely Ezra Pound) in England. Frost returned to America in 1915 and thrived. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times, was poet in residence at Amherst, the University of Michigan, Harvard, and Dartmouth. He read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and traveled as a goodwill ambassador to Russia, where he apparently charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

Frost lived a long time—he died in 1963 at the age of 88, wrote well into his final years, and reigned consistently as America’s best-loved poet. He could also be what Lionel Trilling called him: a “terrifying poet.” Frost wrote more distressing poems than “Stopping by Woods,” but it surely has its disturbing dimension. What prevents the rider from dropping the reins and giving in to the seduction of the woods, “lovey, dark, and deep”? Giving in would almost certainly mean freezing to death—it’s snowing and it’s cold. And who hasn’t, at one time or another, thought about sliding off the mortal coil, especially if one can do it readily and without much pain? When the speaker observes that he’s traveling on the “darkest evening of the year,” the darkness may be more than atmospheric. A darkness of the soul? Yes, maybe so.

The traveler stops and savors the prospect of a rather luxurious death, but then another impulse arises:

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.

“Sleep,” like “darkest evening of the year,” contains what we might call a Frostian depth-charge. He’s apparently talking about rest after a long day, but he may also be talking about the ultimate rest. “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep”: the repetition is ominous. But you can easily ignore the dark undertones and think of this as simply a poem about a man pausing for a moment on an arduous trip. I understand that some readers believe that “Stopping by Woods” is a poem about Saint Nicholas delivering his gifts on Christmas Eve, with miles to go before he takes his well-earned rest.

Frost did not like Trilling calling him a terrifying poet—the occasion was a banquet celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, the setting the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. (There were many such banquets, many honors.) Frost wanted to be popular, and he wanted to sell books—he was, and he did. Remarks like Trilling’s could be bad for business. Frost earned a lot of money, which he spent on himself and on his family. Frost has been characterized as a miserable father and husband; it’s true, he could be self-absorbed and even cruel. But as Jay Parini, author of an excellent biography on Frost writes, “By any standard, Frost’s dedication to his wife and family was extraordinary. … That he had been a devoted father cannot be questioned. The children had grown up with him in the house as a constant presence. … No parent or spouse is ever perfect and Frost—a man who fought with depression and anxiety throughout his life struggled with his family responsibilities; for the most part, he bore them well.”

Frost wasn’t always dark or terrifying. One of his most memorably beautiful poems is “Putting in the Seed”:

You come to fetch me from my work tonight

When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see

If I can leave off burying the white

Soft petals fallen from the apple tree

(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,

Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea),

And go along with you ere you lose sight

Of what you came for and become like me,

Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.

So far, what we have is a lovely poem about gardening. But then matters shift, and the poem becomes richer and stranger.

How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed

On through the watching for that early birth

When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes

Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

Anyone with a passion for gardening will recognize the feelings that infuse the poem. In the springtime, people fall in love with planting and with imagining the bounty to come. It’s the time of hope for the gardener before pests or bad weather interfere with the dream of plenty. Frost himself was a gardener and intimately knew the passion for growing.

Yet the poem is about more than gardening, much as “Stopping by Woods” is about more than a sleigh-ride in the cold. It is also about the act of love, putting in the seed that leads to pregnancy and birth. “Love burns through the Putting in the Seed”: life begins with sex, passion inspired by love. But love continues on past the moment of lovemaking, into the days of pregnancy, when husband and wife together wait for birth. And then comes the seedling, the child, sturdy and strong, “shouldering” away the earth crumbs.

The poem is about fidelity. The husband is there for the act of love, yes. But he’ll be there through the pregnancy and on to the birth. This is a marriage poem, about a love that will abide on into the future, going beyond simple passion into regions of care, compassion, and respect.

Like “Stopping by Woods,” the poem is up to two things at once. You can read it as a simple hymn to the joys of spring planting, and not be wrong. But you can also see it as a hymn to sex, marital love, and devotion. Frost wouldn’t have blinked twice if you missed the sexual connotations of the poem; just as he’d probably have been unfazed if you read “Stopping by Woods” and said nothing about easeful death. If you want to follow Frost into his depths, that’s fine; if not, his reputation as the good white-maned poet of New England remains intact.

Frost has a genius for doing two things at once. In “Birches,” he makes a boy’s tree climbing, which combines daring with studious care, into a metaphor for how to live one’s life, balancing risk and bravado. In “Two Tramps at Mud Time,” Frost shows us subtly how chopping wood feeds his poetic art. It helps him combine his avocation (farming) with his vocation (writing). They merge, he writes, “as my own two eyes make one in sight.” Farming provides Frost with the subjects and metaphors for his poems. He surely feels that the country and the farm are the places where reality is most intensely concentrated. “Mending Wall” is a poem about two men restoring a stone wall, and it’s also a brilliantly revealing encounter between progressive and conservative temperaments. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says that progressive. To that the conservative replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” When pushed, he says it again. “He will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes having thought of it so well …” The resonances of the poem reach forward in time to us and all of our current talk about borders and limits, and the building of walls.

Frost offers surface pleasures, to be sure, and they are very real. Readers who simply stop and savor them won’t be making a mistake. But he also invites you to experience perceptions and possibilities that are more richly complex. One hundred and fifty years after his birth, it’s worth our while to go back and read him again, and yet again.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His books include Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals and The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching. His latest book is The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the On-Line World.


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