About Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

His most famous poem has some hidden meanings

Sunburst through snow covered trees
Dougal Waters/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Robert Frost was one of America's most esteemed poets. His poetry often documented the rural life in America, particularly New England.

The poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is considered a hallmark of simplicity. With only 16 lines, Frost used to describe it as "a short poem with a long name." It is said that the Frost wrote this poem in 1922 in a moment of inspiration.

The poem was first published on March 7, 1923,  in the magazine New Republic.

Frost's poetry collection New Hampshire, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, also featured this poem. 

Deeper Meaning in "Stopping by Wood..."

The narrator of the poem talks about how he stops by the forest one day on his way back to his village. The poem goes on to describe the beauty of the forest, covered in a sheet of snow. But there's a lot more going on than just a man riding home in the winter. 

Some interpretations of this poem suggest that the horse is actually the narrator, or at least, is in the same mindset as the narrator, echoing his thoughts. 

The central theme of the poem is the journey of life and the distractions that come along the way. In other words, there is so little time, and so much to do.

The Santa Claus Interpretation

Another interpretation is that the poem is describing Santa Claus, who is passing through the woods. The time period described here is the winter solstice when presumably Santa Claus is making his way to the village.

Could the horse represent the reindeer? It seems possible that the narrator could be Santa Claus when he reflects on "promises to keep" and "miles to go before I sleep."

The Staying Power of the Phrase "Miles to Go Before I Sleep"

This line is the most famous in the poem, with countless academics arguing over why it's repeated twice.

Its underlying meaning is the unfinished business that we have while we are still alive. This line has often been used in literary and political circles.

When Robert Kennedy made a tribute speech after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he said,

"He (J. F. K.) often quoted from Robert Frost--and said it applied to himself--but we could apply it to the Democratic Party and to all of us as individuals: '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.'"

The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, kept a copy of Robert Frost's book close to him till his last years. He hand-wrote the last stanza of the poem on a pad that lay on his desk: "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." 

When Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau died, on October 3, 2000, his son Justin wrote in his eulogy:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep. He has kept his promises and earned his sleep." 

Does the Poem Reflect Frost's Suicidal Tendencies?

On a darker note, there is some indication that the poem is a statement about Frost's mental state.

He faced many personal tragedies during his lifetime and struggled in poverty for more than 20 years. The year he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work was also the year his wife Elinor died. His younger sister Jeanie and his daughter were both hospitalized for mental illness, and both Frost and his mother suffered from depression.

Many critics suggested that Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was a death wish, a contemplative poem that describes Frost's mental state. The symbolism of snow as cold and the forest being dark and deep adds foreboding.

However, other critics just read the poem as a ride through the woods. It's possible Frost was being optimistic by ending the poem with "But I have promises to keep." This suggests the narrator wants to go back to his family to fulfill his duties.