Teaching Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

I almost didn't include Frost's most famous poem on the Modern American Poetry syllabus this semester. It is nearly impossible for me to read the text outside of a kind of Thomas Kincaid penumbra of sentimentality. Frost was of course a very canny operator & assiduously cultivated his image as a simple New England bard, buying him a large audience; it is the reason I despised him for so long -- I couldn't overcome my dislike of his hucksterism even though I knew it masked what Hayden Carruth calls "serious esthetic intent" (in his essay "The Intentional Alligator"). Another problem with teaching the poem is that you can always count on one or more students in the class having had the poem explained to them in high school: it's about suicide, don't you know? But I decided to include it as a kind of test of my teaching. Sure enough, when the poem came up in class last week, a couple of students advanced suicide reading. What is difficult about responding to the argument, as it comes from students, is that the argument does represent an advance over the usual reading of the poem suffused with sentimental candle glow. So I said something like: Listen to the tone of the poem before the final stanza, including its jangly interlaced rhymes. Is this the voice of someone contemplating suicide? (Is mild melancholy a prelude to self-extinction in the real world, as opposed to self-help books & afternoon TV talk shows?) The picture is too pretty -- one of my problems with the poem, actually -- & the voice too mild. (Compare Robinson's "Richard Cory," in which the tone & the narrative voice are filled with irony from the beginning) The poem -- or my reading of it once I have stripped away as much of my bias as possible -- is more complex & subtle & less melodramatic than the high school English teacher imagines. The poem has been turned into a piece of simple-minded psychology, but the great & maddening virtue of poetry (especially modern poetry) is that it is not simple-minded, that it insists we think past conventional sentiments. And this goes to my own working definitions of art, the intention & interpretation of art. Good art does not settle for simple answers and it does not allow the reader or viewer or listener to put a check mark in a box & assume understanding of the poem. No one ever understands a poem. My response to my students was an attempt to rescue "Stopping by Woods" from two different sentimental interpretations -- First, the one that hung me up for so long & second the one that has apparently prevailed in the culture of American secondary education. In fact, the poem is a meditation on the nature of ordinary experience, which is always, if we are willing to look, imbued with strangeness & ambiguity. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" presents us with a moment of strangeness: the speaker pauses where he would not ordinarily pause & contemplates the cold & "lovely" beauty of the natural world before being drawn back, rightly, to the social world of "promises." There is nothing necessarily oppressive about such promises -- they are the contracts that make us human, the contracts of love & responsibility with which Frost was so deeply concerned in his better work. For Frost must take some responsibility for our failed & simple-mined readings of this poem.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening””

  1. yes, that’s how it is. wonder, and rue, for the speaker of the poem. and for the trenchant reader–
    s/he who is prompted by the poem to explain the self to the self, the self that tells so many lies, the self that evades, dissembles, denies, recognizes dimly at first before acknowledging the balance of disclosure & closure and then moving on in victory that is an acceptance in failure. a self that to survive half-sleeps and also has seen beauty plain.
    edward mycue

  2. Fortunately, I had never heard the suicide interpretation.

    I have a similar visceral reaction to sculpture (assuming I understood your point). If a figurative sculpture is too literal, too perfect at reproducing the person depicted (down to the rivets in their jeans) then I’m not interested in it. Seems like a waste of good metal to me. I’d rather look at a sculpture that skews reality a bit and calls for some analysis or contemplation. (I especially like Giacometti.) I like a sculpture to which I must bring something.

    Maybe that’s sort of what you were saying with your poetry musings.

  3. Pablo, yes. You catch my drift. In this case, though, the fault lies partly with the poem / poet & partly with our cultural desire to codify & over-simplify. Frost wrote many other poems that don’t invite sentimental simplifications so much as “Stopping by Woods . . .”

  4. My blog Spice Drawer Mouse is listed at Sharp Sand under poets, but I do not usually comment although I read – ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowey Evening’ should be an easy poem to comment about. I have wanted to link to YouTube because there was a video last summer called Creating ‘First Class’, a play about Theodore Roethke. This shows John Aylward, with Kurt Beattie and David Wagoner. When I buy earphones I can plan to hear what they have said. To think of David Wagoner’s poem ‘Walking in the Snow’, which refers to a critical comment on Elinor Wylie’s poem,’Velvet Shoes’, is a winter idea, and since David Wagoner’s poem begins, “Let us put on appropriate galoshes…” a Focus the Nation concern is also met.

  5. I could have used some appropriate galoshes today — the ground here is covered with slush. I think Wagoner wrote his poem in reply to a critic who said of Wylie’s poem, “Had the poet written, ‘Let us put on appropriate galoshes’, there could, of course, have been no poem. I’m quoting from memory so I may not have that exactly right, but clearly Wagoner is demonstrating that primary requirement of poets to take perverse delight in puncturing conventional wisdom.

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