Saturday, 22 December 2007

On Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

At the last club meeting, we were discussing alternative ways to spend the winter break, and reference was made to ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’. This was the poem Robert Frost (1874-1963) said was "my best bid for remembrance." Some confuse it with his other woodland poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. That’s the one that starts and ends
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
And sorry I could not travel both
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This has been described as an 'autumnal' poem, and 'Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening' as a winter poem. It is set on 'the darkest evening of the year", implying the midwinter solstice which falls a few days before Xmas Eve. Spending Xmas in the woods today has a special appeal, for it is inherently less bleak than spending it in open country, and snow itself has a cushioning, deadening, effect. Even in urban settings, a heavy snowfall muffles sound so the day can be eerily quiet.
There’s an episode of the vintage sitcom Father Knows Best that illustrates the appeal of woods at Xmas. (As the title indicates, it belongs to an era of unquestioned certainties now long gone, though it was followed by 1970s Xmas specials, and is now being remade as a sendup.) The series’ all-American typical family, en route to visit country-dwelling relatives for Xmas, are forced by a Xmas Eve snowstorm to spend the night in a deserted forester’s cabin. The kids have been acting as spoilt ‘modern’ teens, whingeing about not having their own phones etc. But they rediscover an appreciation of the ‘thanksgiving’ basics by being snow-bound in a cabin. Since that time, many North American families have, or aspire to, a weekend cabin or cottage for this “R&R” purpose.
Frost’s poem is much darker, seen by some as a contemplation of “the dangerous seductiveness of the woods” – the seductive appeal of quietitude itself, to the point of contemplating death. This is a conception belonging to an age where the basics of survival are no longer central, as they had been until recently. The poem’s original inspiration had in fact been a family-duty trip at Christmas 1905, when “Frost had made an unsuccessful trip into town to sell eggs in order to raise money for his children's Christmas presents.” Today, its last lines can also be seen as social duty requiring one to postpone the personal, or natural desire to live the quiet life where one can spend one’s days and nights contemplating nature. Here it is, in full:

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.

Woods in snow

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