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Interpretation of Robert Frost’s Poems Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

Title: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

  • Type: Lyric
  • Rhyme Scheme: aababbcbccdcdddd-last two lines are the same
  • Setting: In a sleigh in the middle of a winter’s night, between the lake and the woods and not near the houses.

Metaphors

  • The entire poem is a metaphor for the journey of life
  • jingling harness bells: a reminder

Symbols

  • winter: old age or maybe just rest
  • snow: purity
  • sleep: death
  • the darkest evening of the year: bottom of the depression
  • woods: escape

Images

  • deep winter
  • quiet night
  • white snow
  • jingling harness bells
  • frozen lake
  • woods filling up with snow

Tone

The tone is reflective, just as one might reflect briefly on a quick stop

Interpretation

The poet is on his way home in a horse-drawn sleigh, and he is tired and wants to rest. He knows, however, that if he stops he might never wake up, and he has promises to keep, so he goes on. This poem is about life’s journey and how we get tired and wish we could escape, even die, but the promises we made, our duty, keeps us going.

Biographical relevance

Frost often wrote about nature and winter. He was a farmer, so he had more time then. He did feel a little different, as evidenced in his poem: Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Title: The Good Hours

  • Type: Lyric
  • Rhyme Scheme: AABB-ccdd-Neff-gghh (4 Quatrains)
  • Setting: Walking through town and then away from town and back in the middle of a winter’s night
  • Figures of Speech: (metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration)

Metaphors

  • The entire poem is a metaphor for seeking the company of peers, escaping and then returning, accepting not belonging
  • Shining eyes: lit windows
  • Creaking feet: the sound made when we walk on dry snow

Similes

Like profanation: the squeaking of his steps were like swearing

Symbols

  • winter: old age or maybe loneliness
  • snow: purity
  • village: home
  • shining eyes: lit windows, symbols of warmth and company
  • dark windows: loneliness
  • walking out: escape

Images

  • deep winter
  • quiet night
  • white snow
  • the sound of a fiddle
  • dancing people in houses
  • houses with lit windows
  • houses with dark windows
  • slumbering village street

Tone

The tone is reflective, just as one might think while taking a walk.

Interpretation

The poet realizes he is alone and different from the other townspeople because he is not invited to share their evening entertainment and he goes alone on his evening walk. He may go and never come back, but he changes his mind, remembering the music and lights. However, when he gets back he is still alone and everyone else has gone to bed. He is the odd one in the village, still awake at 10 PM. He feels like even the squeak of his footsteps on the snow is an intrusion.

Biographical relevance

Frost often wrote about nature and winter. He was a farmer, so he had more time then. He did feel a little different, as evidenced in his poem: Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” This poem points out that difference again as he is walking home while everyone else is asleep.

Title: On a Tree Fallen Across the Road (To hear us talk)

  • Type: Sonnet
  • Rhyme Scheme: ababcdcdefefgg
  • Setting: In a sleigh in the middle of a stormy winter’s night

Figures of Speech

Metaphors

  • The entire poem is a metaphor for the journey of life towards a goal
  • circling in one place is a metaphor for not accomplishing one’s goals
  • Symbols:
  • winter: old age or maybe just rest
  • snow: purity
  • sleep: death
  • storm: problems
  • space: any direction
  • seize earth by the pole: take control of one’s life

Images

  • deep winter
  • storm
  • deep snow
  • runner tracks
  • frozen lake
  • walking in a foot of snow

Personification

tempest is a “she”

Tone

The tone is philosophical and analytic: the poet is thinking about the nature of man facing difficulties.

Interpretation

The poet is moving towards a goal in a sleigh when the winter storm throws a tree across his pathway. He has no ax and feels that this only happened because she (the tempest) knows he has not axed and wants to stop him from reaching his goal. He says that man is born to succeed, even if he has to change direction or even change goals. We assume he went around somehow.

Biographical relevance

Frost is, once more, writing in his favorite element, nature. He tells us about being stopped by a tree falling across the road when he has no ax. He also says he went around it.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

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.

Good Hours

I had for my winter evening walk–

No one at all with whom to talk,

But I had the cottages in a row

Up to their shining eyes in snow.

And I thought I had the folk within:

I had the sound of a violin;

I had a glimpse through curtain laces

Of youthful forms and youthful faces.

I had such company outward bound.

I went till there were no cottages found.

I turned and repented, but coming back

I saw no window but that was black.

Over the snow my creaking feet

Disturbed the slumbering village street

Like profanation, by your leave,

At ten o’clock on a winter eve.

On a Tree Fallen Across the Road

(To hear us talk)

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood

Throws down in front of us does not bar

Our passage to our journey’s end for good,

But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.

She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,

And make us get down in a foot of snow

Debating what to do without an ax.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:

We will not be put off the final goal

We have it hidden in us to attain,

Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,

Steer straight off after something into space.

Main body

Frost often used nature for his poetry, painting us a word picture of what he saw. He was a farmer also, so he was not so busy in winter and had more time to write. All his poetry lends itself to literal reading and reading for symbolic meaning. There is debate about what the poet intended, but it raged while he lived and he never said one way or another.

The metaphor of deep winter may be a symbol of aging or loneliness in all three poems. All three of these poems are about life and how we keep going through the winter darkness, troubles, and loneliness. Light is probably warmth and enlightenment, or wisdom. And we do get to the light, the light of home, the light of the town, or even the light of the stars.

All three poems are lyric and all are close to a sonnet in form, though only one is really a sonnet. Frost knew his forms but considered the content more important. They all have a rhyme scheme, but Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening has the most complicated rhyme scheme. Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of the most recognized and popular poems of Robert Frost and it has been analyzed over and over, but it touched me the first time I heard it and it still does. I have read all the various interpretations I found and I agree with some of them, but I think there is more here than the desire to rest and recover from depression (possibly SAD) and the saving grace of duty. The narrator is on his way somewhere and he is going through a dark wood in a sleigh, along with a single small horse on the darkest day of the year. He is tired and it is tempting to stop right there, which would mean he would freeze to death, quietly, comfortably except for a few moments of shivering, and peacefully. However, he decides he cannot rest because he has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps.

This poem can be interpreted on two levels: literal and symbolic. I believe Frost’s poetry must start with an image that strikes a chord in the poet and gives him a way to express ideas that cannot easily be put into words. The images in this poem together with the meaning of the words tell us so much about the poet that it could take a whole book to describe what he says in a single verse.

For me, I can see him plugging slowly along in the snow and hear the sleigh bells tinkling in the silence of the deep dark woods as he passes the frozen lake. It is December 21st and this night is long. He could stop to rest, but if he does, he knows he may never get started again, so he goes on, because it is his duty and he still has a long way to go. I also see the symbols of life with its troubles being the dark wood and the darkest day of the year may be a time of deep despair. The frozen lake hold life suspended, sleeping. The woods belong to God, as they are the poet’s life.

The pony is his conscience, reminding him that he has promises to keep, and the miles may be years before he can rest in death. However, beyond the literal and the symbolic interpretations is the combination that makes us put one foot in front of the other, especially when we are all alone with no one to encourage us, and use any excuse to get from today to tomorrow. When we are tired or depressed curiosity and energy ebbs to an all-time low, we have no ambition and the only reason we go on is that ever-present fallback on duty, which keeps us putting one foot in front of the other through a snowstorm in the dark, waiting just one more hour before we take action or one more day before we take our lives. I think Frost only wanted to rest, but he knew that if he did so in this spot on this darkest day of the year he might never get up, so he avoided the danger and kept going. It was not temptation to die, but temptation to rest where he might not wake.

All three poems share many of the images of winter in small town northeastern US. They also share the journey image. The journeys in the poems are not long, but they all have a beginning, a direction as choice and a decision.

One very clear element in these poems is the idea of being different. It is not so apparent in Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, because the narrator is simply alone and isolated. It shows more in the other two poems. In Good Hours, the narrator knows he is different, as finally shown very clearly by the fact that he is up long after everyone else (normal people) has gone to bed. The Good Hours, follows the evening walk from town and back. The thread of aging, loneliness and weariness pervades this poem, and it is another story of a journey. Frost mentions that he is walking alone and it is very deep winter, since the cottages have snow up to their “shining eyes’. It is interesting that he mentions that he “thought” he had the folk within the cottages. This hints that he may have found out later that he did not have them for company, as it turns out when he returns and the “eyes” are dark.

This poem is another which stems from the literal, but offers itself to symbolic interpretation. We don’t think of this poem as being about aging, loneliness and the temptation to stop on the surface, but the narrative shows the narrator’s discovery that he has no real company and he is truly alone. We assume he is older, since he describes the inhabitants of the cottages as “youthful” and we think they may be dancing to the fiddle music which he hears coming from the row of cottages.

We know there is temptation to leave it all behind, perhaps to die, or at least get lost, because he says he goes way beyond the cottages, civilization, and the repents and turns around. He talks as if he expected that he would not be alone if he returned, but he is disappointed to find that all the windows are dark and everyone has gone to sleep without even acknowledging his journey, either his leaving or his return. It has gone unnoticed. However, he hears his footsteps in the snow on this quiet night, and feels even more that he does not belong, the sound of his steps profanes the evening so late at 10 PM. It is here where he realizes he did not “have” any company on his journey out and none to come back to either. He is very aware of being different as all the villagers are asleep and he is still up and around, “profaning the street” with his noisy, squeaking footsteps.

Goals are important in all three poems, though they are much more subtle in Good Hours. In Good hours it is just the idea of finishing a walk and getting home, while in the other two the goals are mentions specifically, though they are called promises in one.

On a Tree Fallen Across the Road the meaning is very subtle in some ways, since it begs us on the surface to only pay attention to the beginning lines. There is, as in the other two poems, a literal interpretation of a trip in the deep winter (again) being stopped when a tree falls across the road. Nature is personified as in most of Frost’s poems, and tries to stop the journey from reaching the desired end. However, as in the first two, the narrator will go on. He may take a different route, or even change the goal, and “Steer straight off after something into space.”

On the surface this poem is about ambition, and fate, with troubles (the tempest)which cannot stop us even with supposedly insurmountable problems, like throwing a tree across the road when we have no axe. However if we read further we see that we will not stop, even though we may not, after all, reach our intended journey’s end, at least not the original intended end.

The sequence here is that the tempest throws a log across the road and we have no axe. So we get down in a foot of snow to see what we can do and we are reminded that we have no power to control our lives or their direction. But it does not work, because we fail to recognize that obstruction to one goal should stop us, so when we get tired of going in circles we grab another goal and follow it even into space.

All three of these poems are about the progress through life, attainment of goals, the ability to go on even when we are tired, alone and the way is blocked. The two poems which seem to be about loneliness and despair are really about stubbornness and fortitude, as is the third poem. No matter where we are or what the temptation we go on. We go on without help, company or friends, with no more tools than our hands we seek our final goals. It is just the way we are.

All of these poems are short snapshots of the poet’s life. They are ordinary things in the narrator’s life. The poet uses ordinary words to describe the world around him and within him. Yet, the message he is communicating with these images is much more profound than the words alone can say. It is in our reaction to those words, the thoughts they inspire that the meaning is communicated. Some things, like the description of the sound of the fiddle and the dancing people in Good Hours would take chapters in a psychology book, but we understand. We also understand how he means that his squeaking footsteps are profaning the silence of the sleeping village. We also understand that the tempest is not a woman throwing trees across his pathway, but this phrase communicates his frustration, just as the phrase about going in circles does.

I have not read a poem by Robert Frost I did not like. He gives us food for thought and imagery on which to meditate, sounds like music for our ears and always a piece of himself. I do not think there is a lot more to interpret about these poems. I do not really like to interpret poetry. I prefer just to enjoy it and let the meaning creep in. If I like a poem or dislike it, I probably get meaning from it. However, maybe the meaning I find is not what the poet intended. I am not sure that this is important, because I think of poetry like music. Not everyone likes the same music, even though they understand it and know how it is made. They may even be able to interpret the music, but they still may not like it. It is also true that we can like music we do not understand just for its sound, and that is true of poetry also. Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is a case in point for me. I do not understand this poem entirely or maybe at all, but it is one of my favorites. Maybe Carroll was merely playing with sound and there is nothing to understand, but I like it.

So maybe I do not understand entirely what Frost says, or maybe I read more into his poems than he put there. I do not think this matters. It matters only that I enjoy reading the poems. I guess that is why we buy books of poetry. I could never be a poet, but I can enjoy poetry.

References

Frost, Robert, 1923, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1923), p. 87. D-11 0397 Fisher Library.

Frost, Robert , 1915, Good Hours, North of Boston, New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Frost, Robert ,1923 , On a Tree Fallen Across the Road, New Hampshire, New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Carroll, Lewis, 1872, Jabberwocky, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872).

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