Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)
by Robert Frost
Introduction … Robert Frost finished writing this small, simple poem in just one night. He had never imagined that it would attract such universal attention, and readers would discover so much meaning in it. This poem got him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize – the highest literary award of America. The poem has been acclaimed as a very powerful, thought-provoking, and inspiring literary work. Although the text is so simple and clear, critics have interpreted it in so many philosophical ways. Such intense interest in this poem both pleased and surprised Robert Frost. In fact, he felt a little embarrassed to see critics discovering so deep meanings in the poem which never crossed his mind when he penned the poem.
As regards the central message of the poem, it can be said that it is an intensely inspiring poem. Because of its underlying message, it strikes a chord in the mind of even the most insensitive reader. Like the Hindu epic Bhagvat Gita, it gives a clarion call for duty-bound action. Responsibilities to the family and the society must outweigh all other distractions — moral or immoral. It implores the reader to eschew escapist tendencies, and shun languidness. He must prod on, despite all odds.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the visionary prime minister of India was so much moved by the poem that he kept its last three lines under the glass of his work table in his office. In his struggle to re-build India, he drew inspiration from it till he breathed his last.
The poem’s meaning …
Robert Frost reveled in the serene natural setting of New Hampshire. It gave an impetus to his creative mind. He loved the woods, the silent environment, the trees and the snow that fell so exuberantly on them.
It was the day of the Winter Solstice – December 21 of each year, when darkness descends on the earth earlier than all other days of the year. Mounted on his horse, Robert Frost had set out on a long journey along a very lonely road that winded through a forest. The darkness of the dusk was setting in. He was tired. He stopped for a while in a spot that overlooked a solitary house belonging to one of his known persons. There was the frozen lake, the majestic trees, but no farm house in the vicinity. The sound of the chilled winds blowing and the falling snowflakes broke the silence of the place.
Frost was lost in the bewitching landscape of the spot. He wanted to feast his eyes in the beauty of the forest and its trees. So captivated was he by the scenery that he thought of standing there longer to savour the beauty of the forest and the trees — possibly forever. He had no intention to go to the comforts of the lonely house visible from there. Going there would have deprived him of the intoxicating pleasure of gazing at the woods.
Just then the horse shook its body making the brass bells tied to its harness make some sound. Perhaps, it was signaling to its owner (the poet) that any thought of hanging on in that place in the cold night would be a foolhardy idea. The sound the horse’s bells made disrupted the poet’s thoughts. He came back to his earthly senses. He remembered that he had an enormous, unfulfilled task ahead. To discharge it, he must move on. Forsaking the unfulfilled obligation that loomed ahead, just to enjoy the charm of the woods, would be an abdication of duty, he reasoned. That would result in painful moral indignation, and the un-forgivingly critical society would heap insults on him.
The underlying message ..
Repetition of just one line, “And miles to go before I sleep’ transforms the simple and short poem to a masterpiece. The charm of the woods and the trees can be likened to the worldly attractions which makes most human beings stray from the right path. The pleasures of life uproot our moral moorings, entice us to forget the call of duty and find virtue in escapism. Thus, lost in the indulgences of life, we degrade ourselves.
Only the most steadfast and righteous individuals conquer the attractions of life and cling to the path of ‘duty’, despite very heavy odds and painful sacrifices. They trudge on to fulfill the duties the society has thrust on them.
This core message makes the poem such an inspiring one.
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