Robert Frost had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Robert Frost stopping by the woods and waiting for snow.

A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.

Robert Frost couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. All he had done was right a nice, little, lyrical poem about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening, and now critics the world over were trying to dig beneath the layers of his words to find the deep, hidden, symbolic meanings he had placed there.

Frost wrote:

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.

Scholars, critics, and university professors, who all considered themselves to be more learned that the great unwashed, began writing papers to literary journals and lecturing hard in class that Mister Robert Frost had written a great metaphor about the specter of death. It had long been their opinions that the mention of snow was a symbol of death, and now Frost had proven their point for them. It wasn’t “miles to go before I sleep.” It was “miles to go before they lay me in my grave.”

Oh, it was beautiful.

Oh, it was poetic.

And some of the bolder scholars even began spreading the world that Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening was, of all things, a suicide poem. The great Robert Frost, the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry was contemplating suicide.

Stop the presses.

Then one amongst them came up with a brilliant idea. Why not ask Robert Frost himself what he meant?

He sat down with the poet and said, “Sir, what great, hidden, symbolic meaning did you have behind the repetition of the last two lines: miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep. Mr. John Ciardi believes you are writing about death.”

Frost smiled and answered, “Well, I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like Ciardi of the Saturday Review writes and publishes about me. Now Ciardi is making Stopping by the Woods a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, ’This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.’”

“Then what are you writing about?”

Frost shrugged and said, “What I’m saying is: ‘It’s all very nice, but I must be getting along, getting home.”

“Then why did you repeat the two final lines?”

“What repeating the third line does is save me from a third line promising another stanza,” Frost said. “This was the only logical way to end it.”

He would later explain: “I was simply riding along on my horse one day and stopped by the woods … on a snowy evening. I went home and worked all night on my poem entitled New Hampshire. I went outside to look at the sun the next morning, and the poem just came to me. I always thought it was the product of autointoxication from tiredness.”

Robert Frost had attended Dartmouth and Harvard but never earned a degree. He had to work instead. He delivered newspapers, served as a cobbler, and worked in a factory as an arc light carbon filament changer. But in his heart, he knew he was a poet, always saying, “I had to write poetry. I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Of his profession, he has left us these thoughts:

  • A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
  • A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
  • Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
  • I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.
  • A poet never takes notes. You never take notes in a love affair.
  • Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.
  • To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.
  • Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.
  • Poetry is what gets lost in translation.
  • Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.
  • Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.

Of life, Frost left us these thoughts:

  • Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.
  • Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.
  • Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.
  • Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
  • Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.
  • A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.
  • A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.
  • A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.

Robert Frost was a master. The poet/critic Randall Jarrell once wrote of him: “No other poet has written so well about the actions of ordinary men; his wonderful dramatic monologues or dramatic scenes come out of a knowledge of people that few poets have had, and they are written in a verse that uses, sometimes, with absolute mastery, the rhythms of actual speech.”

In doing so, he spoke to and for us all.

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  • Thanks for the list – some of these I quote and didn’t know where they came from.

    I bookmarked the post, though I don’t think that will work.

    Poetry is an attempt to wrestle language into something reasonable. Sometimes it succeeds.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You, Alicia, are one of the fine writers who can turn a poetic language into prose.

      • Why, thanks.

        I have one rule: as long as it doesn’t interfere with the story.

        Something has to be awfully important to the plot for me to allow it to even cause a hiccup in the forward motion of the story; it has to be something which, because it will be so satisfying in the future, is allowed the tiny hitch.

        People have told me that they get these things from, for example, the epigraphs at the beginnings of the chapters – and all of a sudden they understand why that particular epigraph was chosen.

        It makes me happy.

  • Jackie Taylor Zortman

    Robert Frost’s poem has always been my very favorite. If snow represents death, I must be living in hell. It’s everywhere I look.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jackie: My college English teacher and I battled over symbolism. She said “snow” meant death. I said “snow” meant winter. I didn’t make good grades in English.

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