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Frost's "Stopping by Woods":

Several Critical Perspectives


Brian Powell
May, 1990
English 190
Dr. Koon
Frost's "Stopping by Woods":

Several Critical Perspectives

When I was in school, there was a man who came around every

year to try to get kids interested in buying or renting band

instruments. He demonstrated and described the instruments in

various humorous ways, and he must have been quite good at his

job, because I can still recall some of the things he said. I

particularly remember his comparison of the trumpet and the

clarinet. He said that kids often think trumpets must be easy to

play, since there are only three valves to press, whereas all

those keys on a clarinet make it look so complicated. He assured

us that, in fact, quite the reverse is true. The trumpet's

limited mechanics exact a great deal of skill from the

musician's lips, while the clarinet player's numerous keys

afford him relatively easy access to a wide range of notes by

fingerings alone.

It is with this musical memory in mind that I attempt a

literary critique of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy

Evening." Is there enough in these four short stanzas to justify

the effort? I believe the answer is yes, provided we approach

the poem from several different viewpoints before deciding on

which one best approximates the definitive analysis.

Since Frost was a twentieth century writer, and not wildly

controversial in the way that someone like Joyce was, there is

probably not too much difficulty for a textual critic in

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establishing that what we have is the standard text. It is

unlikely that Frost secretly distributed an unexpurgated version

of this poem in rural Vermont and New Hampshire while openly

publishing the version that's been "handed down" to us. Frost

was capable of occasional discharges of esoteric Yankee humor,

but he was not that funny.

There is at least one sure argument here for a feminist

critic: the "characters" in the poem are exclusively male. All

the pronouns are of the male gender. The author's complete

disregard of women does not put him in a very good light. Why

not at least inject some gender neutrality by pluralizing the

owner of the woods? Frost could easily have replaced "His" and

"he" with "Their" and "they" without changing the meter at all.

There is also a thinly veiled reference to male perceptions of

women's sexuality in the words "lovely, dark, and deep." Have

not men always attempted to subjugate women by controlling their

sexuality, associating female desires with uncontrolled nature

("woods")?

A Marxist critic might look at the way this capitalist

"owner" exploits these "woods," resources that should rightfully

be in the hands of the people (as should all of the means of

production). This bloodsucking fat cat is cozy and snug in his

bourgeois house without a single thought for the proletariat who

are probably freezing half to death as the wind blows snow

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through cracks in the walls of their meager hovels. See how the

author, siding with the imperialist oppressors, mocks the plight

of the workers by downplaying the harshness of their

environment, euphemistically portraying the blizzard as "easy

wind and downy flake."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a Christian critic

might interpret this poem as an allegory. There may be a distant

echo of Dante here. Since God ultimately owns everything ("The

Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof"), He must be the

one "Whose woods these are." His "house ... in the village,"

must be the white-steepled church common to every little New

England town. We run into a problem with "He will not see me

stopping here," however, unless the first stanza represents pre-

conversion thinking. Such a view fits well with the "darkest

evening of the year" motif since one enters into the kingdom of

light upon conversion. The traveler's (pilgrim's?) brief stop on

the road between the woods and the lake represents his

confrontation with the attraction and mystique of temptation, on

the one hand ("lovely, dark, and deep"), and with the

inevitability of final judgment represented by the lake of fire,

neatly inverted here to "frozen lake."

Ultimately though, none of these critical approaches

succeeds. They are all limited by their very subjectivity. Their

frames of reference are so narrow as to be irrelevant to the

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average reader. The poem is not primarily political in nature

anyway. A much more fruitful way to examine this work is to look

at how it deals with the tension between the aesthetic and the

utilitarian. This approach will have greater universal value

since it is a theme we all experience in our daily lives.

The great opposition in the poem is between the attraction

the narrator feels for the beauty of nature and his overriding

sense of obligation to get on with his journey and keep his

commitments. The struggle is very much a personal one, yet it

arises from a value system which has been internalized from the

surrounding culture. Frost's historical/biographical background

shows us that he came from a time and culture in which the

traditional Protestant work ethic was still widely accepted and

practiced. His narrator is concerned about what the owner of the

woods (or other people in general) might think or say about this

impractical and unscheduled stop ("He will not see me") almost

as much as he is concerned with his own mixed feelings about it.

Even the horse, accustomed as he is to a predictable routine,

with his puzzled head-shaking reflects the culture's stress on

the utilitarian side of life.

Although the pull of those "promises to keep" ultimately

wins out, there is triumph in the fact that the narrator even

stops at all, however briefly. Whether this aesthetic victory is

a major or a minor one is open to question, of course, but its

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presence indicates to us that the narrator, however much he may

be inhibited by those around him, has an appreciation for the

beauty of nature--"The woods are lovely"--which is strong

enough, when he's alone, to at least temporarily prevail in his

internal dialogue.

Lest the romantic in us should want to overly chide the

narrator for his bondage to the "tyranny of the urgency," we

should ask ourselves when the last time was that we, on the way

home from work, for example, pulled over somewhere just to look

at the sunset. Are we any less the prisoners of our commitments

than Frost's narrator? Is there really that much fundamental

difference between our fast-paced, twenty-first century (nearly)

lifestyle and that of Frost's era? Probably not; that is why

this poem continues to be a powerful piece of literature,

despite its brevity.

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