• Feb, 01, 2019

Promises to Keep: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

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It was a scenario that every psychiatrist has learned to dread. You are in an office with somebody who is telling you that he or she has no reason or desire to live any longer. On one occasion when that happened, I was in-session with a woman roughly my own age. She was highly accomplished, well-liked by family and colleagues and, to an outsider, would certainly have seemed to have everything to live for. Yet, as we spoke about her feelings of depression and hopelessness, none of that seemed reason enough to stay alive. She had preselected a site in downtown Washington DC where she could drive off a bridge without her seatbelt on and have an accident that was sure to kill her and nobody else. What could I say to her to make a difference? It might seem strange that I would think about this person in connection with Robert Frost’s classic lyrical poem “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening.”

Here is the poem:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

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.

And for those of you who might like to hear how it sounds when somebody else recites it, my son Josh offered to record it when we were out walking together in the snow. Here is his rendition:

What makes it such a great favorite?

The poem is certainly pleasant to read, but what makes it such a great favorite? Experts routinely list it as one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, and I is also popular with the general public. For example, it came in at number 31 in a 1995 survey of Britain’s favorite poems. How can we understand its appeal?

On the surface, the poem may seem simple. In four short stanzas of four lines each Frost tells the story of a man riding through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage on a snowy evening. He stops and stands by the roadside and looks at the snow falling into the woods. Then he decides to get back into the carriage and head on to his destination. In other words, not much happens – or so it seems.

The poem is readily accessible; all its words would be easily understood by the average high school student. There is something comforting about the absence of fancy language. It makes you feel as though a friend or neighbor is talking to you. The meter (four iambic feet per line, each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) seems to echo the rhythm of the horse’s hoof steps as he makes his way along the country road. The rhyme scheme is simple but captivating (AABA; BBCB, CCDC; DDDD), and the language, though spare, is gorgeous. Consider the poet’s description of what he hears apart from his horse’s harness bells:

The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In just two lines Frost conveys to us the sound and feel of the wind and goose feather snowflakes. Those lines bring us to the last stanza where a shift occurs. Here it is:

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.

Woods

In my opinion

It is this last stanza that holds the key to the life-enhancing and healing powers of the poem. At one level, the poet’s dilemma is common to all of us. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” suggests that he would like to rest there awhile, but he needs to move on. It is the type of situation we routinely encounter in everyday life. For example, we may be feeling comfort or joy in a situation (whether it is lying in bed after a night’s sleep, visiting with friends or immersed in a book or movie), when we realize that we need to be somewhere else or do something else and must therefore shift gears. The poet is in the process of deciding to make such a shift, albeit in more interesting circumstances than those I have listed.

But there is much more going on in this stanza than a simple gear shift. What is the connection between its first and second line? What is the relationship between the woods being “lovely, dark and deep” and the promises the poet has to keep? Something is going on in the poet’s mind that is implied but not stated. So the reader is left to fill in the gap, and it is this mystery, I believe, that draws us back again and again to the poem and makes it endlessly fascinating. We will never know what is going on in the poet’s mind that connects the woods to his awareness that he needs to move on, so our interpretation is something of a Rorschach Test. There must surely be different interpretations, all perhaps equally valid. But let me offer mine as a psychotherapist, which relates to our theme that poetry is a tool for understanding suffering and for healing.

A psychotherapist routinely builds mental models of what may be going on in the patient’s mind, which help move the therapy forwards. Such models often include things left unsaid, perhaps even outside the patient’s awareness. Let us suppose for a moment that someone in therapy were to say to me: “I was riding along in my horse-drawn carriage the other night when suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, I stopped, climbed out and looked into the dark woods as the snow was falling. My little horse seemed to sense that there was something wrong because I don’t usually stop in the middle of nowhere without a farmhouse near. I was very tired, but I kept staring into the distance as the woods filled up with snow, thinking, ‘These woods are lovely, dark and deep.’” How would I respond to such a person? I would probably ask, “Did you perhaps wish to lie down and fall asleep in those woods and let the snow cover you?” And I would not be surprised to hear, “That thought did cross my mind.” And then I would ask, “So, what stopped you from lying down there and letting the snow bury you?” And the answer might be, “I said to myself:

…… I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Story: drunk and depressed

A friend told me a story about her father who in later life developed an alcohol problem, and was often drunk, especially towards the end of the day. On one occasion, drunk and depressed, he went walking into the woods on a snowy evening, tripped over a log and landed on the snow-covered ground. He thought to himself how peaceful it would be to just lie there and let the snow cover him. The cold numbed him and at that moment he felt as though there would be no suffering in ending his life that way. Then he remembered that he had promised to pay for his granddaughter’s college education, and the thought bothered him. If he allowed himself to get buried, who would take care of her? She was such a clever girl, and it was important that she reach her potential. And how could that happen without his help? Nobody else in the family had the means to cover her tuition. That was when he hauled himself up off the ground and slowly lumbered back to the house, took off his wet clothes, lay down on the couch and fell into a deep sleep. He couldn’t end his life, not while he had promises to keep.

We all need to be needed

A few years ago the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled, “Behind Our Anxiety: The Fear of Being Unneeded.” They pointed out the paradox that nowadays many people in the world’s richest nations are plagued by anger, discontent and anxiety about the future. To explain this paradox they referenced data pointing out that older people who didn’t feel useful to others were three times as susceptible to early death than those who felt useful. Their conclusion: “We all need to be needed.” When you promise something to someone, you recognize that the person needs you in some way. You feel needed, if only to fulfill the promise. Perhaps that is how the poet felt when he was standing and staring into those dark woods. He had promises to keep, he was needed, so he’d better get a move on.

That brings me back to the suicidal woman I mentioned at the beginning. She was brilliant, accomplished, financially secure, yet felt as though she had no reason to go on living. I had pointed out to her everything she had to live for, which failed to put the smallest dent in her convictions. So I resorted to a psychiatrist’s Hail Mary: would she contract with me that she would let me know in real time if she were feeling actively suicidal and give me the chance to see if together we could make a plan to prevent her from taking her life. She responded with a wry smile, and pointed out something that had many times occurred to me about the apparent absurdity of the so-called “suicide contract.”

“If I’m willing to leave behind everything dear to me,” she said, “why should a contract with you hold any water?” She had me there, of course, but quickly bailed me out. She told me what her previous psychiatrist, since deceased, had responded to that very same question. “’I know you wouldn’t break such a contract,’ he had said. ‘You wouldn’t do that to me.’ And of course,” she added, “he was right.” She had a promise to keep, and it was not in her nature to break a promise.

Unwritten but implied?

I wonder if much of what has made Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening so dearly loved and meaningful to generations is unwritten but implied. Frost has left to our imagination what transpires in the poet’s mind in that shift between “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” and “But I have promises to keep.” The suggestion I offered above is of course only one of many possible interpretations, which comes from the vantage point of a therapist. No doubt there are many other scenarios the reader can conjure up to fill that space. But the central elements are likely to be there: the weariness, the struggle to carry on, the promises that bind us to those who need us, that bind us to life; the pain of exhaustion, and our profound need for sleep.

 


Your engagement is appreciated!

In the “write a comment” section below I encourage you to share comments about this blog post, as well as to leave your favorite poem(s) and what they mean to you. I will monitor this and re-post selected favorite poems on my blog and the Poetry Rx Facebook group.

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