Monday, December 20, 2010

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Robert Frost’s familiar verse (see previous post) may be the best known Winter Solstice poem, though it may not always be recognized as such.

The speaker of the poem makes his stop on “the darkest evening of the year,” presumably the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. He stops to look into someone else’s woods, woods that are “lovely, dark, and deep.” Is he merely pausing among those promises he has to keep to admire nature’s beauty or does his own heart’s desire to stop, to sleep, to die, resonate with the depth of winter?

Freudians have read a death wish into the poem, but I read it as a human parallel to nature’s cycle, which brings us to the brink of death each December, before reversing itself and returning us to the light. Similarly, we may experience our own seasonal or situational depressions, even suicidal thoughts, but just as our own “promises to keep” restore us to life, so does nature keep its promise to us, to light, and to life.

Yet the tone of the poem is not triumphant, joyful, or celebratory of the return of light and life. Those “promises to keep” seem more obligatory than anticipatory. The speaker sounds more resigned to living than expectant or hopeful

In the same way, nature makes no great show at this time of year. It defers its outward celebration to spring and the full flower of summer. The hard price of joy and hope may be the simple will power it takes to fulfill our responsibilities, meet our obligations, and keep our promises.

Robert Frost was no Pollyanna when it came to representing human experience. His father was an abusive alcoholic, two of his children died early, one at age four and one in infancy, another daughter preceded him in death after long suffering, a son committed suicide, his sister and another daughter were hospitalized for mental illness. (See the Lawrence Thompson biography.) Tragedy, death, and suffering were no strangers to Frost.

His poems about family life were starkly realistic, not sentimental; his nature poems acknowledge the brutality as well as the beauty of nature (see previous blog post on “Design,” June 29).

He would have known how the joyful celebrations at the season of the Winter Solstice—the artificial lights, the decorated trees, the brightly colored gifts, the bountiful feasts—are achieved by many obligatory acts of keeping the promises of the season. He would have known from harsh experience how the annual holiday orgy serves as a colossal cultural and psychological defense against the fears, the losses, the sadness and the resignation that also accompany the season.

Nature keeps its promise according to rote each year. How many of us go through the motions of decorating, shopping, wrapping, caroling, cooking and raising our glasses to toast each other while masking an inner desire for hibernation in woods that are “lovely, dark, and deep”? Yet it is the effort to keep those promises, meet those obligations, and fulfill those responsibilities, the sheer will power of living that is ultimately rewarded by genuine moments of joy, hope, and celebration in life.

Frost’s poem does not capture such a triumphant moment, but it does capture a positive one in the contemplation of “easy wind and downy flake” and in the affirmation of those “promises to keep” and “miles to go” at life’s darkest time.

And so, at this time of the Winter Solstice, whatever tragedies, losses, and mere sadness beset you, may the blessings of life also be upon you.

A Poem for the Winter Solstice

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.

Robert Frost, 1923