Sunday, September 20, 2009

Transgressive Desire and Action in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

These past few weeks I’ve been obsessing over one of Frost’s most simplistic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can remember memorizing and reciting the poem in second grade and I decided to memorize it again. Most of it came back to me fairly quickly, and I’ve been reciting it for my two boys after their bedtime stories. Through the processes of (re)memorization, I’ve also been revising my interpretation.

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.

Like much of Frost’s work, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is highly accessible on a certain level, even to children. In fact, Frost published a collection of poetry intended for children titled You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers.

My more recent analysis, however, would more than likely not be included in an elementary school teacher’s lesson plan. I believe the major mode of “Stopping by Woods” is not pastoral but transgressive, a mode which early critics failed to consider.

John T. Ogilvie, for example, focuses on the “dichotomy” of two environments in the poem: 1) the speaker’s intense fascination with the dark manifestation of the natural world and 2) his social “obligations,” the “promises to keep” (l. 14). Ogilvie further asserts that these two environments are given equal consideration: “The artfulness of ‘Stopping by Woods,’ consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced.

Perhaps a definition of my terms is in order. By ‘transgressive,’ I’m referring to the mood of the poem which asserts a general breach of social order or convention. Such a mood cannot operate within Ogilvie’s balanced dichotomy because the transgressive mood threatens to cancel out the second part of such a balanced equation, the speaker’s obligations to society.

One of my constant slips in the process of memorization occurred in the third line of the poem, which I mistakenly recited as “He will not mind me stopping here” instead of “He will not see me stopping here.” Such a slip is indicative of my own ordering of the poem’s narrative. It makes sense that the speaker might consider the land owner’s possible objections, but this is not the case. Instead, the speaker only considers whether or not he will be noticed or ‘caught.’ Such a distinction is small, but it sets the transgression of the poem in motion with the simple act of trespassing. The transgressive mood is further defined in the final stanza of the poem, as the speaker celebrates not only the act of trespassing, but its achievement, the place: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” (l. 13).

More recently, critics have identified the transgression of the poem as emblematic of the speaker’s desire to permanently sever all social ties. “The theme of ‘Stopping by Woods,’

Jeffrey Meyers asserts, “is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year.”

Such a dark interpretation may be justifiable, but its specificity is restrictive. Perhaps it is more useful to identify the speaker, as so many of Frost’s speakers, at the very intersection of indecision, malaise and social obligation. He yearns for and even idealizes transgression because he believes it may allow an escape from such uncertainty.

Works Cited

Ogilvie, John T. "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost’s Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly. Winter 1959.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

1 comment:

Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...

Hooray for the fruits of memorization! Isn't it interesting? I love this new interpretation, Matt.