A Battle with Temptation

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
Robert Frost often speaks of the New England landscape in his poetry, highlighting the wintry seasons that invade its lands. In one poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker travels on his way home when he spots a thicket of woods. He muses on snow filling the trees and how the owner of the woods will not spot his sight-seeing. As his horse urges him on, he enters a mental conflict on whether or not he should be enraptured with the woods or continue on home. The traveler struggles to maintain his life’s purpose in the midst of temptation.
From the first stanza, the listener may infer that the speaker’s act of watching the intriguing woods is a forbidden act, one which he has no right to perform. In the third and fourth lines he says “He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” Since the speaker isn’t spotted by the owner of the woods (“He”), he can watch the owner’s property without fear of being caught. Some interpreters believe God represents the owner, but why would the man say that the owner will not be able to see him? Cannot God see all things? The more likely interpretation is that the owner is a mere man with whom the speaker is in contact with more or less. The speaker involves himself with a temptation that could damage his relation to the owner on some level. Yet why would merely watching the woods be a sin? Maybe he just wishes that no else would spot him considering something that is out of the way of his life’s purpose.
It definitely seems that the man’s fascination with the woods is shocking to a degree. The horse shakes his bells as if asking if there is a mistake in stopping to watch the woods (lines 9-10). Whatever the speaker is doing is out of the norm from his daily living routine. The word “darkest” in line 8 points to a tone of evil being introduced; the traveler has entered into the possibility of committing sin. And this temptation seems to be growing on him. Lines 11 and 12 says “The only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.” The word “sweep” is an instance of onomatopoeia, giving the listener the sense that the speaker will soon be swept up in this new found consideration embedded in the woods. The words “easy” and “downy” are adjectives that signal how simple and easy the temptation is for the speaker to be embellished in. The longer he thinks of the woods, the more he falls under their wintry enchantment.  Line 12 furthers the description of the woods as being “lovely, dark and deep.” They are “lovely” in that they appeal to him, “dark” in that they suggest transgression, and “deep” in that once he gives in to what they suggest, he will be lost for a long time, possibly forever; there will be no end to his succumbing to it.
But there appears to be a shift in the speaker’s attitude towards the woods when he says “But I have promises to keep” (line 13). He is now countering or trying the resist the lure of the woods and what they suggest. He attempts to center his focus on the obligations he has towards other people, maybe the owner of the woods or maybe his family. By giving in to the temptation, he endangers his relationships with others in the village mentioned in line 2. The shift in the poem’s rhythm also points to the speaker’s shift in focus; up until the fourth stanza, the poem’s rhyme scheme has been aaba. But the fourth stanza has a scheme of straight aaaa. Such a change in the poem’s structure changes the flow of words and the speaker’s speech pattern. But what could this change ultimately mean in regards with the speaker’s battle with temptation?
The answer seems to lie in the fourth stanza’s final two lines: “And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” This instance of incremental repetition could point to several conclusions. The first is that, by repeating this phrase to himself, the speaker is fighting the wood’s spell on him, trying stress the importance of keeping his vows to others. Sometimes people often repeat resolutions to themselves to emphasize their importance. But it seems just as likely that the speaker has lost the battle with temptation. Repetition of phrasing could occur when a person is falling asleep. The word “sleep” is repeated twice in the final two lines, giving it special attention.  The speaker could be falling asleep as his fatigue is gaining on him. The word “miles,” being repeated twice as well, suggests that the speaker has a long, wearying journey to go before he can rest form his labors and duties. And maybe that is precisely why he falls under the wood’s enchantment; he has lost the will to go further, overwhelmed not merely with physical fatigue but spiritual fatigue too. His responsibilities have become too demanding. It is far easier to give in to rebellion when one is tired. The woods offer a quick solution to his difficult workings. Since the fourth stanza goes in one direction as far as rhyme scheme (in contrast to the first three stanzas) this could prove that the speaker has now fully fell under the enchantment. Some have even suggested that the speaker is dying at this point since death is often metaphorically compared to sleep. Thus the poem goes beyond being a simple poem of a man falling asleep next to a set of woods. But ultimately, it is up for the reader to decide what the poem means for them and what the speaker actually endures. As for me, it seems that the speaker has succumbed to a delightful temptation in response to his stressful life, an all too common human experience. But this temptation feels more peaceful than evil for me, since I always picture a man falling asleep quietly next to the woods as the snow is slowly falling down, a much needed rest for a man pushed to his very core.
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3 responses to “A Battle with Temptation

  1. Pingback: A Battle with Temptation | The World According to Devin Stevens

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