On the night of the Winter Solstice a traveler stops in the woods to watch the snow fall before lamenting the amount of living life still has in store for him and moving on. That is the premise of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
When I am weary, feeling down, I will utter the epic last line of that poem, “And miles to go before I sleep,” to myself before getting on with my life. Many times in my life I have felt that line. The wish to linger. The wish to take in the simple pleasure of watching snow fall in the woods. It isn’t that last line I want to focus on today. Instead, it is the first couple lines, “Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though.”
In all my years of reading and reciting this poem to myself I have never focused on those lines. I’ve always used the ending as a call to action. As a feeling of camaraderie with the narrator’s own weariness and call to duty. The promises to keep and miles to go before sleep. We all feel that weariness at times, but do we think about whose woods these are. We think we know, and his house is in the village.
When I think about those lines I see a declaration of faith. A tired traveler is stopping in the woods on the night of the Winter Solstice. Stopping for a brief rest before getting back to the toil and worry of life.
Now the woods could belong to one of the town leaders but when we think about the narrator there is nothing said about it being his village or a village where he knows anyone. Yet he is confident that he thinks he knows whose woods these are. His house is in the village.
The church is the house of God and his house would be in every New England village at the time Robert Frost penned this poem. The woods, the wilderness, is often depicted in the Bible as both a place away from God and a place of trials, temptation, and tribulation. It is a place where our faith is tested, and yet it is God that tests faith. They are his woods even if he is currently dwelling in his house in the village.
The middle stanzas of the poem focus on the reaction of the traveler’s horse who is confused by the stopping. It is the realm of man to want to take a moment of rest. To idle in the woods and watch the snow fall. The horse is confused as there is no farmhouse near and a brief rest to take in the beauty of the world is confusing when a deeper more full rest after a day of travel is needed. The horse focuses on the practical or at least the narrator imagines he does.
Quickly it is back to duty. It is easy to envision this entire scene playing out over a mere minute or less. A man pauses to watch the snow fall. Reflects on the woods and the house of the Lord before his horse is troubled by his stopping, shakes his head, and then they both move off to get back to the duty of living.
Faith is not a passive thing. It requires duty. It requires effort. Some of that is the effort of existence which is a tiresome thing indeed, but then there are the promises we keep, and if this is read as a poem about faith what are those promises? To love God with all our heart, all our being, and all our might and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These are the promises to keep. Simple but difficult. Ones that lead to weary and want. Ones that keep us longing for the day of rest, but there are miles to go before we sleep.
The end of the poem is a lamentation. It is a regret. The narrator wishes to linger still, but realizes that duty calls him onward. He is feeling the curse as some might say. The toil of the world and the duty of his promises has word him down and he longs for and wishes for the day of rest, and the darkness of the cold night in the wilderness calls to him, but he breaks away to most likely head off into the village. The same village where the owner of the woods, God, resides in his house, the church, a place of salvation and rest.