Robert Frost was afraid of the dark. He was scared of storms and petrified of prowlers when he penned an iconic poem about the darkest night of winter.
I think of this as I drive through the foothills of the Green Mountains in South Shaftsbury, Vt., en route to the red-gabled stone house where the blue-eyed poet wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922, about a traveler who halts his horse to watch the snow fall.
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.
First published in The New Republic in 1923, the rhyme has been freely pasted on Christmas cards and holiday décor since entering the public domain in 2019. But it also has long been interpreted as a “death poem” — even though Frost claimed that was never his intention. “You can’t trust these fellows who write what made a poet write what he wrote,” he once said. “We all of us read our pet theories into a poem.”
People would read pet theories into the poet as well his poetry.
Reporters visiting his Dutch Colonial stone house a century ago would find Frost, with windblown cheeks and mended trousers, at home amid the New England landscape so prevalent in his poems — stone fences and bucolic farmhouses, birch trees and blankets of snow. He’d moved into the limestone cottage in 1920, when it had no running water, to farm apple trees. Though he sometimes split wood and hoed the garden, Frost wryly laughed off depictions of himself as a rustic rhymer “with a hoe digging potatoes or walking in the woods reciting my own poems.”
Hailed as “the goodest greyest poet since Walt Whitman,” Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry. He had a witty persona and twinkling blue eyes that captivated crowds and made him a pet of the press, which suggested he “carried his own atmosphere with him.” But his reputation as a genial New England sage who sold roadside sweet peas would be blemished by a controversial biography that depicted him as an ill-tempered egomaniac. Literary critic Lionel Trilling called him “a terrifying poet.” And President John F. Kennedy, who presented Frost with a Congressional Gold Medal in 1962, later remarked, “If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.”
Like the poet, his poems of the milk-and-sugar country were subject to varying interpretations of light and shadow. Frost wrote of “darkness and despair, as well as of the hope, which is in his case limited by a certain skepticism,” claimed Kennedy. His pastoral depictions of New England’s natural world reveal his range. “Frost saw not only beauty in nature but also terror,” literary scholar Perry Westbrook wrote in his book examining New England literary history. “A snowstorm can freeze a person to death as well as produce gracefully molded drifts.”
Frost had been up all night writing a poem about New Hampshire when the idea for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” came to him one summer morning in 1922. A second poem sometimes emerged while he was at work on another, “forcing itself as a Siamese twin on its predecessor,” he once explained to an interviewer. Crafting the poem “in a few minutes without any strain,” Frost said it was as if he’d had a “little hallucination.”
As a boy Frost used to dream stories. Born in San Francisco to a hard-drinking father, young Robert reportedly used to sit on the shore tending to his father’s whiskey bottle and coat while the old man swam around a buoy in the bay, fearful he wouldn’t make it back from the choppy waters. And he long remembered being terrified when he became momentarily separated from his family during a walk along the California coast at dusk.
As a grown man, his trepidation was palpable to the reporter who interviewed him for The New York Times Book Review in October 1923. “Have you ever seen a sensitive child enter a dark room, fearful of the enveloping blackness, yet more than half ashamed of the fear? That is the way Robert Frost, poet, approached the interview,” Rose C. Feld wrote. Feld recounted how Frost’s friends asked her to meet him at his publisher’s office. “Come and get him, please,” they said. “He is a shy person — a gentle and a sensitive person — and the idea of knocking at your doors, saying, ‘Here I am, come to be interviewed,’ will make him run and hide.”
Frost would bury a wife and four children in his lifetime, including a son, Carol, who killed himself by shotgun in the stone house, which is now open to the public and run by Bennington College. An eerily life-like statue of the weathered-faced poet sitting on a bench overlooks the property, where he set out “to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees.” A decaying snow-apple trunk stands amid the high grass, not far from the dining room where he wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and where a phonograph plays a record of him reciting the poem in his trademark trembling voice.
Frost claimed to have “a lover’s quarrel with the world” — words now etched on the poet’s tombstone behind the Old First Church in nearby Bennington, where a little metal sign asks visitors to leave his grave as they found it and refrain from leaving “pebbles” and “plastic flowers” in remembrance.
As for the iconic winter evening poem written on a summer morning, Frost called it his “best bid for remembrance.” He reportedly quipped “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” could have been written with “40 pages of footnotes” — though he didn’t like it when people pressed him to interpret his own poems.
“I tell ’em that if I wanted them to know what I was saying I would have told them,” he once told an interviewer. “Didn’t Shakespeare say it, ‘I refuse to have the heart plucked out of my mystery’?”
Rebecca Taylor is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ProfessorTaylor.