The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep

snow on evergreen branches

Whose woods these are I think I know

Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was first published on March 7th, this day in 1923. The story goes that Frost wrote this poem in a few minutes, after being up all night writing another. He took a sunrise walk, and got an idea.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, 1923
by Robert Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963)
source: Wikipedia

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: Memories, Old and New

Like many Americans, this was one of the first pieces of grown-up poetry that I was exposed to as a child. I remember sitting quietly at a little square desk in a darkened room, listening to a female voice reading. I felt dreamy, ignored fidgeting classmates, and wondered if we’d be required to write big kid style book reports about poems.

When I was getting ready to make this post I asked around about other people’s Snowy Evening memories. Many were from childhood, but not all. One 33 year-old person described recently sitting around an outdoor fire pit in Winter weather, roasting marshmallows, drinking hot cocoa, and reading read Frost to each other. I think that would be a lovely tradition for Winter Solstice, “the darkest evening of the year.”

The idea of reading this poem for Winter Solstice makes me think ahead to what might be a nice, poetic tradition for the vernal equinox, the first day of Spring. In two short weeks we will be just as close to Summer as the dead of Winter. I’m thinking of planting some snap peas, or maybe some cool weather greens – that sort of thing makes me happy. It will also be a class break for the college student in my family, and she is nothing if not poetic. We will think of something.

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38 Responses to “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”

  1. Daisy Says:

    I could share many deep and thoughtful encounters with this poem, but this story always makes me smile – despite it being from a different Frost work. I quoted “The road less traveled” one day, and my then middle-schooler began reciting the entire poem. I remarked how proud I was of her knowledge. In true teen fashion, she replied, “Ms. Trigg has this poem hanging on her wall, and I read it whenever I’m bored.”

  2. admin Says:

    :)

    What we have hanging around does tend to come back and say “hello!”

    When my daughter was in about the 5th grade, she dug through a box of books that was due to be garage-saled or given to charity. She scored a fat book of Shakespeare that gave her her first look at King Lear. She was transfixed. Soon, “The weight of this sad time we must obey,” became code for the parental “chores before socializing.” 10+ years later, she can still recite that passage with great passion.

  3. Abimbola Akanwo Says:

    Thank you for sharing your stories…

  4. neelam Khubnani Says:

    The current financial doldrum eminds me of the line “Woods are dark and deep” as we don’t know when would be out of this dark night engulfing all the happy days of employment, fiscal surplus and GDP growth.

  5. admin Says:

    I think that the lines that stick with us hook into our own contexts.

    “The are woods lovely dark and deep” reminds me of when I was a child and would pretend that magic could be found behind every trunk, in every shadow, under every bit of moss. “Magic” could also be cool bugs, and it didn’t have to be good or bad.

    “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” is the one that I relate to our financial crisis, and it could relate to any goal. There are many times when I’ve been wrapped up in a project and said to myself that I have “miles to go before I sleep.”

  6. Raunak R. C. Says:

    The lines “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.”,
    transports me to another realm.
    A place where i am at peace with myself and where my dreams thrive on the serenity envelloping us(me and My Dreams).
    It transcends a normal poetic vision and gives every reader an insight into what he or she truly is and wants to be,atleast it did that for me.
    The lines speak of yearning and of an enigma, which is Life unlived.
    A kaleidoscope of emotions and goals to fulfill and then most definitely the eventual sleep.
    We truly have so much to do before we face the ultimate truth and just imagine if we can do all this and meet our maker with a smile on our lips.
    Leaving behind an insignia of clarity and positivity as a legacy,for me that would be truly a Life well Lived……….

  7. kroltan Says:

    You are entitled to your opinion, but if this poem makes you think of financial crises, I feel deeply sorry for you.

  8. Itsashirt T shirts Says:

    Great Poet, must read more from Frost… In a few minutes written, superb.

  9. William crothes Says:

    This particular piece of the poem has always been one of my favourites:

    “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 when taken out of the context of the poem, to me strike a deeper, more sombre note. the lines, to me anyway. imply a sense of some duty yet to be done, some commitment still to be undertaken, and a promise that needs to be honoured, before rest can be taken . . .

  10. William crothes Says:

    I just had to come back to add a further comment to the above . . . . in my case, a very personal one, the commitment, duty or promise is to a loved one . . . . .

  11. E. A. Able Says:

    :) “Miles to go” reminds me of when my daughter was small and I made the decision to work at home, into the night, so I could be there with her during the day.

  12. William crothes Says:

    Hi E.A., You have caught perfectly the sense that i take from those lines – sacrifices made. And of course, sacrifices are always made for one’s children and one’s other loved ones

  13. Constanze Rehm Says:

    Years ago, during my language studies, my mentor introduced Robert Frost to me. She helped me understand some of his poems and this was one of the first examples.
    Well, to me the insight I gain from these beautiful verses implies a completely different focus. What I learn is that you don’t necessarily have
    own anything in order to possess a very special moment all by youself.
    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.
    These lines reveal that happy incidents are boundless and beyond petty
    proprietor’s privileges. And thus to me the interpretation of the last verse
    is different from what is quoted above:
    Couldn’t it be, the cheerful observer of the magic minutes is satisfied with his experience and propitiatedly agrees to go on to whatever lies ahead. I don’t see any wistful regret, unloved duties or even sacrifices but instead some lingering mischievous joy….

  14. William Crothers Says:

    Hi Constanze, every interpretation has its own value – and I suppose that is one of the lovely things about poetry – we each see something different. Would you consider it a whimsical challenge, perhaps, to find a poetical quote that is so obviously free of any possible interpretation other than the one the author meant it to have?

    What does this say to you, for example:

    UNDER the wide and starry sky
    Dig the grave and let me lie:
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

    This be the verse you ‘grave for me: 5
    Here he lies where he long’d to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

  15. E. A. Able Says:

    Interesting! You’re quoting Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem. Google tells me it’s on his headstone. Wikipedia tells me it’s also the title of a short story by Heinlein.

    Heinlein’s subject is an aging tycoon whose lifelong dream is to go to the moon. He bribes someone to take him there, where he dies, content. From Wikipedia:

    His body is left there, with his epitaph scrawled on the tag from an oxygen bottle. It is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”, which is inscribed on his own headstone in Samoa.

  16. m morgan Says:

    This poem inspires as well as saddens me- but I have always loved it.
    As an adult I came to see it.. much differently.
    I do feel it IS about duty- but duty- as related to life and afterlife.

    The way I see it is-

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep –

    means – the outward life- the material world with its pain, pleasures, distractions and illusions – tugging at me.

    But, I have promises to keep –

    promises- means – my soul’s agreement with God. What my soul agreed to learn and to accomplish by the end of this lifetime- on my path.

    and Miles to go –

    looking at the woods ( world) I am still so attached to – wondering – how well am I doing in this contest. I am lamenting how- far I have yet to go and grow spiritually – will I get there.

    before I sleep…

    the end of my life- death- meeting God.

    These words always lift me up- at the end. My soul remembers – why -I am walking the path – to keep my promises. God – the universe- has made promises to me also.

  17. E. A. Able Says:

    M Morgan, my gut reaction is close to yours, except that the woods are perhaps more lovely. Those dark woods are mystery – even the Great Mysteries – unstructured time to dream and soak up the world… unknown possibilities. “Promises” and “miles to go” are all about using my time here – though the unknown looks pretty good, I also have commitments to fit in.

    I turned 50 almost exactly six months ago. This year I’ve thought a lot about how much I would love to have another 150 years to work and love and give.

  18. m morgan Says:

    E A Able, Really like your thoughts – a lot. I will turn 65 this summer – perhaps a reason for my – somewhat less ” lovely” view of the woods now. :) Believe I should give yours more thought.

    Please, try to free up as much – unstructured – time – as early in life, as you can. A very deep friend from another country told me that he believes America produces rare great thinkers because- we allow no time for – thinking here.

    thanks much, m

  19. m morgan Says:

    by deep “thinking” I really mean “being” in the present moment- and allowing thoughts – to come into your mind- rather than studying – frantically.

  20. William Crothers Says:

    Hi again . . . I am glad to see there is life in this topic yet . . . there has been a long lull, and it suddenly sparks up again.

    ……………………………………..
    edited
    I removed the poem William posted in this comment. I think it needs a post of its own. Look for it on Monday, April 26, 2010
    – Elizabeth

  21. E. A. Able Says:

    I re-posted William’s poem-sharing comment on today’s “Share Your Creativity Day” post. Thank you, William, for the inspiration!

  22. Shippu Says:

    Analysis: This is a poem discounting the significance of nature. Nature is meaningless.

    Stanza 1: The narrator is trespassing in the woods, he does not belong there but he feels the need to inspect it for meaning.

    Stanza 2: The horse is startled – it can’t find it reasonable being in the woods rather than society – domestication. The shortest day of the year is referenced, it strengthens the meaninglessness of the woods. The reader should feel a level of uneasiness in this and other lines. This leads back to the trespassing line in stanza one. He shouldn’t be there, nature does not add to society.

    Stanza 3: There is a lack of sound. Just a bell, the wind, and snow. He doesn’t find anything special.

    Stanza 4: He realizes nature is meaningless and realizes he has meaningful things to do.

    Just as a note, appreciate the amazing rhyming scheme here. 1,2,4 1,2,4 1,2,4 1,2,3,4 – fantastic

  23. ELANGOVAN Says:

    Istudied these words from my 7th standardclass lessons in 1960s these words are quoted by Pundit Jawarhlal Nehru the mighty architect of modern INDIA the prime minister. these words catched me still iam remembering and quoting

  24. ANGELjoseph Says:

    EXCELLENT PIECE OF POETRY.I HEARD IT WHEN I WAS IN THE FIFTH GRADE.BECAUSE OF IT I AM A GREAT FAN OF POETRY.

  25. Tyler Says:

    My first exposure to this text was during an honor choir in highschool. An all male group called the MA ACDA honor choir. We did a beautiful arrangement by Randall Thompson, from his set called Frostiana. Worth a listen, the beautiful melody has always stuck with me. It came up again more recently as I was performing a piece called “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre (one of my favorite choral pieces ever) and he informed us (both in the music and in person) that he had originally written the music to these words and then learning of the copyright that stated Thompson was the only composer allowed to set it to music. The words to Sleep are different but its still a beautiful piece.

    Love this poem. Thanks for posting

  26. E. A. Able Says:

    Thank you. :-) For the curious, on YouTube I found a lovely rendition of Randall Thompson’s Frostiana. I have a feeling I heard it in a high school choir performance, long ago. I also went searching for Sleep by Eric Whitacre, and found a video of a high school honor choir performance, conducted by Eric Whitacre himself.

    I’ve been busy elsewhere and let QuoteSnack lay fallow. If I have time over the next few days, I’d like to re-open with a post about remembrance and seasonal change.

  27. Zubin Says:

    The deeper meaning of the poem goes this way. The poet in his first line says Whose woods these are I think I know ( here the word woods refers to this world as a whole , the poet means that he know that this world belongs to the lord Almighty). His House is in the village though ( meaning the lord almighty resides in his heart) . He will not see me stopping here ( meaning that the author will not be noticed stopping at this point of his life to ponderabout it) To watch his woods fill up with snow . (here the word snow refers to the old age of the poet) My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near (meaning his mind herein refered to as horse would feel queer as to why at this point of time the author is standing still and pondering ) Between the woods and the frozen lake ( meaning between life and the death ) the darkest evening of the year ( meaning evening is refered to old age considering morning as childhood , noon as young age ) . He gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake (harness bells here refer to his concience , meaning he shakes his concience to find out what mistake he did in his lifetime ) The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. (meaning he gets no proper answer to it)
    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.
    ( meaning this world is lovely , darkand deep meaning this world is filled with lot of uncertainties , and miles to go before i sleep meaning the author has many commitments at this age which he has to fulfil towards his family before he could die peacefully )

  28. Noor Ahmad Lari Says:

    This is really a canonical stuff in the World of English Literature. The 1st time i heard of this poem when my younger brother who was in 5th grade asked my Father, who is a literary genius about it’s meaning & I heard it. Really it is heart touching & brings out the same emotions in me as above Mr. RC Raunak has quoted. This will remain my all time Favourite.

  29. SARTAJ AHMAD PALA Says:

    really a superb poem,d poem really makes me remind my lovely home in kashmir,i remember d snowy winters ven i used 2 watch d flakes falling down it was jst like dat i was sleeping in d lap of holy nature,,,,,i wish i could go bak 2 my home and watch d noisless work of the furries…again i wanna watch dose heavy flakes through my casement window bt i cnt coz i still have thousand deeds to pile

  30. David Says:

    I am scheduled to have prostrate cancer surgery this month. This poem says it all.

  31. E. A. Able Says:

    David — Good luck. May you have many, many evenings in the woods in your future.

  32. T. Woods Says:

    Am in a writing group just now whose theme for next meeting is this quote from Frost:” I have miles to go, and promises to keep.” Interesting to read how others have interpreted this poem, and how it relates to them. At age 82, my “miles to go” are no doubt limited, despite being in good health; promises to keep, are to myself. Want to write the many facets of my life, the many decades, some seemingly belonging to another person.

  33. E. A. Able Says:

    Interesting, T. Woods! I’m about to turn 52. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get and make the best use of more “miles to go.” I was a professional dessert baker in a past life and made cheesecakes and mousse that got written up in restaurant reviews. I loved it then and I still love my skills. However, if eating healthy can get me an extra turn on that roulette wheel of “years to go” in which I could travel… or even get that bedroom closet sorted through any time soon… well, let’s just say veggies and whole grains can be sexy, too.

    Thank you for sharing your thought about “promises to keep.” I will think about that. Posting in a blog is always at least partly about sharing with others. Sharing about the written world helps me feel connected – intellectually richer. I suppose that publishing QuoteSnack is a promise to myself to remember to experience that richness. Letting go is part of the experience for me. Once *you* read it, it’s your experience.

  34. C. J. Says:

    I think that at first he is really just talking about those little moments when you stop and realize that time is passing. I am always so busy and rarely get to enjoy those moments where you can just stop and take it all in, think to yourself “time is passing”. And once you realize time is passing, it hits you that time is PASSING. I think that is where” the woods are lovely dark and deep” and so forth come in to play. He is realizing that. A lot of you i notice are older, I just turned 23 and this poem means a lot to me always has. I just reached a turning point in my life and am headed in a new direction. I have been in college doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Its like up until now I was just watching those woods and now I have realized that I have a promise to myself to do whatever I need to do to make myself happy and I have miles to go before I’m there and that those deep, dark, hypnotizing woods will always be there to distract me, but I will not give up or give in. And as for the miles to go before I sleep, I see as optimistic. I have my whole life ahead of me and I need to make the best of it before its too late.

  35. Rachael Says:

    I think it’s beautiful. So beautiful. I am young. A teenager. Suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. I have been suicidal before. What the end of this poem means to me is that the woods are lovely and dark (the woods meaning death) but the promises being kept are staying alive to your loved ones and the miles you have to go is the journey ahead of you that will get better. Definitely made me sob.

  36. Alphonse Says:

    Many scenes brought to my mind as shadows , which give me soothes , to love and be love . But my mind is distracted with bad thoughts while i am alone. now i don’t have an innocent one to love me. ………..But now sleeping slipping down to my eyes to bed

  37. Dilbagh Says:

    woods are lovely dark and deep
    but i have promises to keep
    miles to go before i sleep
    milse to go before I sleep

    Once I have been to interior of Himanchal. It was a school. These beautiful lines were written on one of the walls. I went there for an interactive session with students.

    Students some times entangles in those activities which are attractive, mysterious and time consuming. These activities some times deviate them from the real goals of their lives. Specifically digital world and peer orientation.

    When I open my discussion with these lines and interpret them in contemporary world truly speaking it has been a great hit with students.

  38. Mitch Says:

    Stopping by woods on a snowy evening…A little over a year ago I was returning home to Florida from a 4 month work trip to the Shanendoah Valley in Virginia. While there I spent every hour of free time driving around in the mountains and valleys and thouroughly enjoying the scenery, the whole time wishing my loving wife could be with me for each new discovery. It is truly a magical place. When it came time to leave there was a heavy snowfall the night before and I chose a route home to Florida, avoiding the Interstates as much as possible. It made the trip longer but it was a drive that I will never forget and it was right out of Frost’s poem and while my true love waited, I lingered a bit longer…The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep…

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