Poetic Structure in Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening"

By Marion A. Davis
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

In Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the motive behind the narrator’s “stopping” has long been debated (3). On one side, some argue that the narrator is simply looking over the scenery. On the other hand, some insist that the narrator is contemplating suicide. While the poem does – at first glance – appear to be describing the narrator as merely looking at nature, his gazing upon the frozen forest is only a superficial layer. If the reader were to examine “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from the technical aspects, deeper layers are unearthed that prove the narrator as suicidal.

 In the very first line, the narrator seems to express a peculiar uncertainty. A caesura is where the reader instinctively pauses even if there is no punctuation. In the beginning line, the narrator states “whose woods these are…;” no punctuation is added here, yet the reader pauses before finishing the line with an uncertain…“I think I know” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 1). If the narrator is simply taking time to look at the icy scene, why would thoughts about unaffecting descriptions be interrupted by uncertainty unless the prospect of some action is causing him to be ill at ease?

Assonance can also be used to identify the narrator’s uneasiness and his making a point of stopping where no one can see him. In the third line of the first quatrain, long ‘e’ sounds are abundant, putting emphasis on words such as “he,” “see,” and “me” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 3). In this line, he seems to once again be emphasizing not only the desire to be alone but also the need to be alone for what is about to take place. The long ‘e’ resurfaces in the last quatrain in the rhyme scheme DDDD. In this final stanza, the speaker repeatedly expresses regret that he is not yet ready to “sleep” – a word that shares similarities, in sound, with the earlier words that describe his needing to be alone (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 15-16).

The meter of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” begins with iambic feet that add to the superficial light-hearted tone; but, as the examination of certain elements of this poem continues to reveal a darker tone, substitution of pyrrhic feet for iambic can be found that also indicate a variation from a light tone. An example of a pyrrhic foot substituted for an iambic can be found in the last quatrain: “have PROM-is-es” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 14). The pyrrhic foot, in this case, shows a change in the speaker’s thoughts. Whereas he was originally was speaking in sentences that consisted of iambic feet, now he has transitioned his style of speech into more inconsistent verses.

At the final quatrain, the narrator abruptly ends his descriptions of the wintry weather to state that he must continue on before sleeping. If the narrator were simply looking at nature, why would he be so adamant that he was not yet ready to sleep? He appears to be drawn into the darkness, deepness, and loneliness of this place, allowing his thoughts to rest on suicide. In the first three quatrains, there is at least one enjambment in each stanza. This continuation from one line to the next allows for fluid, dream-like descriptions. Yet, in the final stanza, he realizes that he is allowing himself to be pulled into the darkness of the woods and comes to his senses. Here, there are no enjambments; the is repetitive and choppy no longer showing darkness or light-heartedness but a dull tone. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” begins in a light-hearted tone; then uses specific elements of the poem to increasingly express deeper and darker thoughts as the poem continues. At the end of the poem, the reader awakens himself and hurriedly escapes from this dream that lured him with images of nature’s beauty and captivated him with the loveliness of the dark and deep. 

Frost, Robert. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5 ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 1133. 

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