In the previous post on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” during which I outlined the reasons I considered the poem beautiful, I also touched on a less common interpretation of the poem: “the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year.”1
Comparing it to Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” David Berlin, then a student at Cape Cod Community College, posited that while in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” the reader wonders whether Emily Dickinson looks forward to death, in “Stopping by the Words of a Snowy Evening” the reader wonders whether Robert Frost intends to delay death.2 “The idea of death,” Berlin writes, “is pervasive in both poems.” The year before, Elli Comeau, now a book coach, made a similar observation: “The theme of death and the death wish being preponderant in Frost’s poem can be recognized by carefully examining the metaphors in each stanza.”3 Dr. James Duban, Professor of English at the University of North Texas, disagrees with these evaluations; rather than infer[ring] a death wish from these lines,” he considers that sleep and death, traditionally paired concepts, symbolize a glimpse of “Eternity looking through Time.”4
Photo from Dreamstime (royalty-free stock image)
Regardless of Robert Frost’s original intention, poetry is a medium open to interpretation, and it is this death/suicide perspective into which Dr. Jennifer Michael Hecht leaned in her poem “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In an interview with TheBestSchools.org, Dr. Hecht, who studied the history of science at Columbia, reported, “Poetry came first, then historical scholarship, then public atheism, and they probably remain in that order in my dedication to them.” She is interested in “the artistic engagement with atheism” and spoke of the poetic life as being a “labor towards the truth of the matter given our circumstances, to the extent that we can perceive them. Poetry listens in to the cacophony of contradictory truths among the error and the willful delusion.”5 “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is copied below for reference. See “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in its respective post or at the Poetry Foundation.
Promises to keep was a lie, he had nothing. Through
the woods. Over the river and into the pain. It is an addict’s
talk of quitting as she’s smacking at a vein. He was always
going into the woods. It was he who wrote, The best way
out is always through. You’d think a shrink, but no, a poet.
He saw the woods and knew. The forest is the one that holds
promises. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, they fill
with a quiet snow. Miles are traveled as we sleep. He steers
his horse off the road. Among the trees now, the blizzard
is a dusting. Holes in the canopy make columns of snowstorm,
lit from above. His little horse thinks it is queer. They go
deeper, sky gets darker. It’s the darkest night of the year.
He had no promises to keep, nothing pending. Had no bed
to head to, measurably away in miles. He was a freak like me,
monster of the dawn. Whose woods these are I think I know,
his house is in the village though. In the middle of life
he found himself lost in a dark woods. I discovered myself
in a somber forest. In between my breasts and breaths I got
lost. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I’ve got promises
to keep, smiles to go before I leap. I’m going into the woods.
They’re lovely dark, and deep, which is what I want, deep lovely
darkness. No one has asked, let alone taken, a promise of me,
no one will notice if I choose bed or rug, couch or forest deep.
It doesn’t matter where I sleep. It doesn’t matter where I sleep.6
Photo (c) 2006 Kena on Flickr
The echoes of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” are immediately evident. Hecht starts with the line “promises to keep” that appears in the last stanza of Frost, but adds that this excuse for moving away from the woods is fabricated; “he” (the rider) has no promises to keep and, in fact, has nothing at all. Unlike Frost’s poem, Hecht’s poem features two characters who stop by the woods, and for both she conveys this nothingness. In the last stanza of “Not Stopping by the Woods of a Snowy Evening,” the readers are given a picture that conveys the other character, one who “discovered [her]self / in a somber forest” (Hecht, lines 17-18), in her own state of having no promises to keep and, similarly, nothing to begin with: “No one has asked, let alone taken, a promise of me, / no one will notice if I choose bed or rug, couch or deep forest” (Hecht, lines 22-23).
Hecht introduces ideas from other stories the way Robert Frost did in his poem.1 The first and second lines talk about the male main character going “[t]hrough the woods” and “[o]ver the river,” reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood’s traipsing over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, only for the male main the destination is “the pain,” which was the woods (Hecht, lines 1-2). The male main, Hecht writes, knew that “[t]he forest is the one that holds / promises,” and the references to “an addict’s / talk of quitting” and the man being a “freak like me” and a “monster of the dawn” implies that the promises that the forest holds relate to release from mental health struggles (Hecht, lines 2-3, 14, 15). Stephanie Palazzolo, a high school student when she reviewed this poem, evaluated Hecht’s poem as a contrast to Frost’s “idealistic, storybook version of the forest” and a spotlight on “the actual reality, the pain that the speaker is going through.”7
The next copy from Frost’s poem is the remark that the woods are “lovely, dark, and deep,” with a slight change being the addition of a comma between “dark” and “and” (Hecht, line 7) This small addition lends a new meaning to the phrase: In Frost’s poem, the woods are lovely because they are dark and deep; in Hecht’s, they the loveliness is separate from the darkness and the deepness, in a sort of recognition of the conflicting emotions that the woods elicit. The second stanza of Hecht’s ends as the first stanza of Frost’s does: with a weather report about the woods filling with snow.
Here, Hecht also adds a variation of what Frost wrote at the end: “Miles are traveled as we sleep” (Hecht, line 8). In Frost, this is “miles to go before I sleep” (Frost, line 15, 16). Hecht’s wording suggests that the speaker has slept while traveling toward and through the woods. Where the journey is some symbol of life and the woods of death, this line could be understood as saying that the speaker has been “sleeping” through their life, feeling that they have been moving forward but in a haze.
Next, the male main steers the horse off the roads, in contrast to Frost’s narrator, who simply stops to look at the words. There is a sense of action in Hecht’s depiction; the male main intentionally rerouted. As in Frost, “[h]is little horse thinks it is queer,” but no mention is made of a farmhouse (Hecht, line 11; Frost, line 5). Hecht doesn’t specify what the horse finds queer: Is it the change of direction? Is it the “columns of snowstorm” created by the canopy (Hecht, line 10)? Is it the darkening evening, which Hecht calls the “darkest night of the year” where Frost calls it the “darkest evening of the year” (Hecht, line 12; Frost, line 8). The change of terminology could be important; night is a later time than evening, evening technically being until sunset and night being from sunset to sunrise. The sky is darker in “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Hecht notes that “[the woods] go deeper, sky gets darker” (Hecht, lines 11-12).
In addition to his lack of promises, in the second part, with stanza 4, Hecht draws attention to the lack of home of the male main, having “no bed / to head to” (Hecht, lines 13-14). Whereas Frost’s character has social obligations to tear him away from the woods, the characters of Hecht’s poem have no promises to fulfill or homes to which they must return. They can lose themselves in “dark woods” and “somber forest” (Hecht, lines 17, 18). The female main repeats the idea of Frost’s character and Hecht’s male main that “I’ve got promises / to keep,” but a reader can surmise that this, again, is a lie (Hecht, lines 19-20). The female main reverts to the grammatical structure of Frost, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep,” no extra comma, but the ending is not the same (Hecht, line 19). “I’m going into the woods,” the female main declares (Hecht, line 20). She speaks of “smiles to go before I leap,” hinting at, it seems, suicide, and alluding to the paradox of a person with thoughts of suicide exhibiting a happy demeanor.8
The last stanza features another grammatical variation of Frost’s “love, dark, and deep” line, this time as “lovely dark, and deep” (Frost, line 13; Hecht, line 21). The female main recognizes an inherent loveliness in the darkness, not a loveliness because of darkness or a loveliness separate from darkness; there is some enchanting element in the dark embrace of the darkest night and in the deep reaches of the somber forest. It is exactly what she wants, this “deep lovely / darkness” (Hecht, lines 21-22). It is as a good a place as any for sleep, and perhaps the best, where sleep may be understood as again being the symbolic partner of death. For the female main, where she sleeps, where she dies, matters now, because no one is checking on her. She can become lost, like the male main, in the promises of the woods.
Note: The third stanza of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the only stanza whose terms are nowhere repeated or paraphrased in “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
- Jeffrey Meyers, “Jeffrey Meyers: On ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’” Modern American Poetry, 1996, http://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/jeffrey-meyers-stopping-woods-snowy-evening.
- David Berlin, “Death Lives in the Poems of Dickinson and Frost,” The Write Stuff, vol. 23 (2013): 21-32, https://www.capecod.edu/media/capecodedu/content-assets/documents/write-stuff/writestuff23.pdf.
- Elli Comeau, “Life and Death in Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'” The Write Stuff, vol. 22 (2012): 47-49, https://www.capecod.edu/media/capecodedu/content-assets/documents/write-stuff/writestuff22.pdf.
- James Duban, “‘Eternity Looking through Time’: Sartor Resartus and Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 38, no. 2 (Oct. 2014): 573-577, https://doi.org/10.1353/phl.2014.0057.
- Jennifer Hecht, “Jennifer Michael Hecht Interview,” interview by TheBestSchools, TheBestSchools.org, Feb. 12, 2014, https://thebestschools.org/features/jennifer-michael-hecht-interview/.
- Jennifer Michael Hecht, “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” from Who Said. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press. Text copied from the Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57684/not-stopping-by-the-woods-on-a-snowy-evening.
- Stephanie Palazzolo, “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Stressed, Depressed, and Not Well Dressed, Dec. 5, 2015, https://stresseddepressednotwelldressed.weebly.com/blog/not-stopping-by-the-woods-on-a-snowy-evening.
- Kate Spade’s husband, for instance, reported that she sounded happy before her suicide. The White Wreath Association, Ltd., for action against suicide, warns, “Certain people grow calm and appear happy just before suicide.”