Robert Frost’s poetry is often included in anthologies for children. his pastoral images owe much to his early years spent as a farmer before his literary career, and their simplicity of language often overlies deeper and far more disturbing meanings.
when I first read this poem as a child, I saw an Anne of Green Gables character, and I enjoyed the delicious shiver of reading about cold isolation while in the warm and dry. when I re-read it today, I see more.
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.
I picture the traveller, pausing unseen to reflect upon the haunting, tempting beauty of the woods. and the secrecy, the loneliness of him, in the sound muffling, all encompassing blanket of snow.
we reach this point of pausing, if we are lucky, when we start to deal with our relationship with alcohol.
because there are times in the early days when the tug of oblivion seems too strong to ignore. and the miles ahead seem bleak and cold and altogether impossible.
this poem has been interpreted in its darkest sense to be about the pull of the death wish. to speak to the urge to step out of one’s everyday life for good, to let the seemingly gentle but death-dealing snow cover us. to give up.
and, we notice – the traveller is alone. (I don’t count the horse.) and the decision to stay out of the woods is most difficult when we are isolated and afraid. be with people who know what you are going through. whether in person or on online. because the people closest to you in real life may have little or no understanding of what you are facing, and however much they wish to, be unable to keep you from taking those steps towards the darkness.
but we have promises to keep. promises to ourselves, most of all. to those who love us and need us, too. when we start to get sober we have no experience of being able to keep promises, to ourselves or anyone else. because how it has gone for us for many years is like this: make a promise, then break it. feel bad about ourselves. repeat. and the worse we feel about ourselves, the more difficult it is to keep the promise. and even worse, sometimes we think we have escaped it and one slip can pull us back into the vicious circle. the miracle of getting sober is that we learn we can keep promises. we keep a promise for one day at first, trembling and terrified. and then another. and soon those days and nights of promises kept build into a marvellous story we can read to ourselves at our lowest moments. to prove to ourselves that we have done it, we can do it again, we will continue to do it.
however low you are feeling, however much that dark wood tugs at you, however many miles it seems you have to go before you can feel warm and human again:
it is possible. it will happen. keep going.
‘And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
the last two lines mean more to me today. the repetition which seemed pointless to me as a child now gives me hope.
because if I hold strong, if I believe that the road will take me home, then in the end, my life road will be long indeed. and those miles will be full of light and warmth and joy.
37 days to go to one year.