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Critical Analysis of Robert Frost Poetry

Critical Analysis of Robert Frost Poetry

Clearly committing Frost to another stanza of interlocking rhymes rather than permitting him to conclude with a flourish, the draft of the last quatrain would have left the poem open-ended. But Frost wanted an ending that was definite in terms of technique yet ambiguous in terms of meaning. Twenty-eight years after writing "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," he revealed his difficulty to Charles Madison: "I might confess the trade secret that I wrote the third line of the last stanza of Stopping by Woods in such a way as to call for another stanza when I didn't want another stanza and didn't have another stanza in me, but with great presence of mind and a sense of what a good boy I was I instantly struck the line out and made my exit with a repeat line."

The repeat line--"And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep."--is at the heart of the ambiguity. Those who favor the standard reading of the poem argue that the line stresses the speaker's rejection of his fascination with the dark trees in order to honor his commitment in the lighted village. Those who insist on a more radical interpretation suggest that the dark trees are as unknowable as Melville's ocean and Hawthorne's forest and that the strongest lure in the poem is not to mundane promises but to ultimate concerns--perhaps death itself. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" supports both readings, but one might also consider that the greatness of the poem rests in part in its ambiguity and that the ambiguity derives from the speaker's hesitation. Literally, he has not moved at the end of the final stanza, and metaphorically he is frozen with indecision. Stuck in the clearing--a significant location in American literature--between the safety of the village and the invitation of the woods, the traveler is unable to choose. To select the comfort of safety is to deny the freedom of the unknown. Frost knows this truth, as do Cooper and Poe and Hawthorne and Melville and Twain, and thus he writes a poem not in praise of indecisiveness but about the costs of making a choice. Concerned throughout his long career with the "hearing imagination," he offers a subtle hint in the last stanza to which all interpretations should finally return: the soft sounds...

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