Miles To Go Before He Slept: The Life and Works of Robert Frost
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Miles To Go Before He Slept: The Life and Works of Robert Frost
Kevan J. Riley
Ever since the days of my youth, Robert Frost has been one of my favorite poets. I can remember my mother reading me "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," and to this day I enjoy the poem as much as I did back then. There is something relaxing about the way that he writes. Perhaps it is the way that he incorporates nature into his poems, or the way that his works have subtle yet profound messages. At any rate, I have come to greatly enjoy his poetry, and I have seen his poems appear in several different publications over the last year. When I recently stumbled across "Mending Wall" while reading an anthology, I loved it so much that it inspired me to examine his poems in depth to see if there is anything I missed in my past experiences with them. Frost's poems are beautiful in and of themselves, but I think that I can appreciate them more now that I am older and I can understand the meaning that is implicit in so many of his works.
One of my favorite Frost poems is "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." The title gives the poem the appearance of simplicity, though simple it is not. At first glance, it is merely an account of a traveler who stops in the woods to take in the beauty around him to "watch his woods fill up with snow" (Frost 207). However, one might wonder why the traveler stops in the first place. I think it is because he was captivated by the beauty of the woods, entranced by the snow falling and the stillness of the night. Apparently, the horse wonders why he stops as well, indicating so by giving " his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake" (207). The beauty of the forest is evident, described as being "lovely, dark and deep" (207). The simple descriptions of the sights and sounds in this poem are part of the reason I love it so much. I can imagine what it was like stopping in a dark, silent forest to watch the snow fall. After enjoying this dreamy sight for a while, the speaker says: "But I have promises to keep," (207), almost as though he has a fleeting glimpse of reality through the trance-like state he is in. However, with the repetition of the line "And miles to go before I sleep," (207), it appears that he has not fully gotten over the wonders he has seen.
Some critics speculate that the theme of this poem is death. One such critic is Jeffrey Meyers, who writes: "The theme of 'Stopping by Woods'-despite Frost's disclaimer-is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year" (Meyers). When read in this light, the last line might imply that the speaker is waiting to die, using sleep as a metaphor. Such complexity provides an interesting contrast with the poem's simple title, and like many of Frost's works, this poem can be understood on a variety of levels.
Another of my Frost favorites is the ironically comedic poem "The Road Not Taken." The poem is written from the perspective of the narrator, who comes to a fork in the road and has to make a decision about which way to go. The odd part about the poem is that both paths are thrice described as being equal to each other. The first time, he ponders one road, and then goes down the other, calling it "just as fair" (103). Secondly, he says the daily use of the paths has "worn them really about the same" (103). Also, both paths seem to "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black" (103). This being the case, how does the choice of the road less traveled make any difference at all? At that rate, if the poem clearly describes the paths as equals, why does Frost describe the chosen road as "the one less traveled by" (103)? This is all part of the irony of the title, for there is no way to define which road is the one not taken. I think that the whole idea behind the poem is that no matter what choice we make in life, there are no paths in life that have never been traveled. The only thing we can count on is that our choices lead inevitably on to other choices, or as Frost puts it: "way leads on to way" (103). It is not so much the path chosen but the choosing of the path that "made all the difference" (103). This poem is a fine example of how Frost was often able to weave deep meanings into short and seemingly simple poems.
Although Frost is famous for his use of nature in his poetry, he often wrote about people, relationships, and the human experience. One such poem is "Mending Wall," one of his most famous pieces. The poem revolves around the narrator and his neighbor, who are repairing a wall that separates them. Although the initial use of the word "wall" implies a physical wall, it becomes more and more apparent throughout the poem that the wall is, in fact, a symbol of the things that drive people to separate themselves from others. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," (39) the speaker says. It is obvious that the narrator himself is the one who doesn't love the wall, but his goal in the poem is to get his neighbor to realize it. "Good fences make good neighbors," (39) the neighbor says, using a phrase that he learned from his father. "He moves in darkness as it seems to me / Not of woods only and the shade of trees" (40), notes the narrator, implying that the neighbor's irrational need for a wall is keeping him "in darkness," or in other words, ignorant of what the narrator has been hinting at throughout the poem. The poet sums up his feelings about it perfectly: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out" (39). The title of this poem utilizes the same sort of wordplay that was previously seen in "The Road Not Taken." Much like the previous poem asked "Which road is it?", this poem begs the question of just what is being mended, the wall, or the relationship? Perhaps it is a question best left to the reader to decide.
Many of Frost's poems tend do be about people and the experiences they go through. "Acquainted With the Night" is a good example. Frank Lentricchia describes the poem as "Frost's quintessential dramatic lyric of homelessness" (Lentricchia), an opinion with which I agree. Perhaps it is not a physical lack of a home, but rather a sense of having no identity in the world. The narrator of the poem seems to have trouble coping with his identity crisis: "I have passed by the watchman on his beat / And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain" (Frost 234). During his walk, he hears an "interrupted cry," but knows that its purpose is "not to call me back or say goodbye" (234). The fact that he describes the time as being "neither wrong nor right" (234) further reinforces his sense of loneliness, as no one is calling for him, nor does anyone care that he is out so late. The night, then, symbolizes the man's loneliness, the melancholy he experiences as a result of having no home. Perhaps the entire situation of walking alone in the night is metaphorical, representing a painful life experience.
These are just a few of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. They are sometimes short and simply worded, which is probably why I liked them as a child. However, with a little analysis, it is clear that they are anything but simple. Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about Frost is that he is only a nature poet. Although it is clear that most of his poetry draws images from nature, these images are usually used to describe the psychological aspects of the human experience. Frost himself once said: "I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems" (Frequently). In "The Road Not Taken," the emphasis is not on the discovery of the country path itself, but rather what drives the man to choose a particular route over another. In "The Wood-Pile," a man wanders through a swamp and discovers an abandoned pile of chopped wood. However, the narrator describes the man who abandoned the wood as "Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks" (Frost 101). Thus, the woodpile is symbolic of the things that people leave behind when they take on new challenges in life. Frost uses the natural setting of the swamp to convey a truth about humanity, rather than just to exalt nature itself. A similar metaphor is used in "In Hardwood Groves." This short poem uses the image of fallen and decaying leaves to represent the necessity of the cycle of life and death. In the poem "Birches," Frost describes his desire to be a "swinger of birches," (118) or in other words, he wishes to enjoy simple pleasures, unencumbered by the "pathless wood"(118) of everyday life.
Frost sometimes used nature in stark contrast to man. In "The Most of It," a man cries to nature for love, but gets only a "mocking echo of his own (voice) / From some tree-hidden cliff" (307). In this poem, man's need for human love is juxtaposed with nature's innate lack of it, and the distance between nature and humanity is evident. The poem is bleak, certainly not the pastoral-type poem that is typically associated with Frost. Another dark poem is "Sand Dunes," in which the sea is characterized as an enemy of man. "She may know cove and cape / But she does not know mankind" (239). This dire view of nature seems to oppose Frost's other poems, which view nature idyllically. However, like many of Frost's poems, the sea and sand themselves are not the point. They are symbolic of the differences between man and nature. John F. Lynen summed it up by saying: "This contrast between man and nature is the central theme of Frost's nature poetry" (Lynen).
Robert Frost has been described as America's poet, and he is certainly deserving of such a title. His poems were a breath of fresh air in their time, using common language in traditional meters as opposed to the more experimental verbiage used by poets of the day. Careful examination of his writing reveals the intricate way that Frost wove natural images into powerful metaphors. His works create a balance of simplistic dialogue and complex psychological observation. The United States Library of Congress describes him as the "best known and most beloved American poet of the 20th century" (Poet). Over the course of his career, he received many honors, including becoming a Poet Laureate, and reading a poem at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy. His most famous poems, such as "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," are ingrained in American culture. In a recent poll by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, "The Road Not Taken" was voted America's Favorite Poem (Frequently). On a personal level, I have grown to appreciate Frost's poetry more and more over time, as I can understand the depth of his work better as an adult. Therein lies the beauty of his poetry: the ability to appeal to people of all ages, and still convey the same sense of wonder that I experienced when I first heard it. The appeal of Frost's work has endured for the last century, and it will undoubtedly endure for the next and the next.
The Academy of American Poets. July 26, 2006. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/192>
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Lynen, John F. "The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost." 1960: Yale University. July 26, 2006. <http://www.frostfriends.org/FFL/Nature%20and%20Pastoralism%20-%20Lynen/l...
Meyers, Jeffrey. "On 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.'" Modern American Poetry. 2002: University of Illinois. July 26, 2006. <http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/woods.htm>
Poet Laureate Timeline 1953-1960. Library of Congress. July 26, 2006. <http://www.loc.gov/poetry/laureate.html>
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