A Poem About Death and … Santa Claus?

I wasn't stopping by woods on a snowy evening; I was simply taking a picture of the woods behind my house on a snowy morning.  Still works for this post, though.

I wasn’t stopping by woods on a snowy evening; I was simply taking a picture of the woods behind my house on a snowy morning. Still works for this post, though.

Printed out and taped to the wall above my door is the same thing that my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Taber, had on her wall twenty years ago:

The meaning lies beneath the surface.  The surface lies.

When I start teaching poetry, I go right to that saying and then pull out the one poem that serves as its best example, Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  You know the poem, I’m sure, but I’m going to post it here anyway …

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.

 

I hand a copy of the poem to my students and ask them three questions:  what’s the poem’s mood, what is the poem about, and why do you think that’s what the poem is about?  Then I give them about five or ten minutes to jot down responses while I project the poem’s text onto my white board.

Most of the years I’ve done this, my students have had little to no problem with the question about the poem’s mood.  They often provide a nice range of description but definitely demonstrate that Frost’s poem is quiet and comfortable and doesn’t have the sadness or gloominess of what they’ve read from Poe (they’re very familiar with “‘Alone'” and “The Raven”), nor is it happy bright, cheerful, or even angry and violent in any way.

But it should be pretty obvious that I’m not there for the question about mood and that question was the setup for what is ultimately the big question of the assignment:  what is this poem about?

It’s clearly, if you haven’t figured out, the very epitome of a “gotcha” question.  “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of the best examples that you can use to show the difference between the literal meaning of a poem and the figurative meaning of a poem.  Most of the responses I’ve gotten over the years from students have been right on the money when it comes to the poem’s literal meaning–there’s a horse, he’s looking at the woods, and has a long way to go before the night is over.   Other times, I’ve gotten Santa Claus.

I’m totally and completely serious.  The horse, the bells, the snow … I’ve actually had my high school sophomores say that this is about Santa Claus delivering presents on Christmas Eve.  More than once, too.

I’ve learned to just roll with responses like that because more often than not they actually are coming from a place of sincerity and not that of Beavis and Butt-head.  And I wrote all of the other answers on the board as well.  When they were finished, I wrote “DEATH” in big blue letters.

Now, I realized I have simplified the meaning of what is a very subtle Robert Frost poem, but I did it to prove a point, which is what’s written above my door:

The meaning lies beneath the surface.  The surface lies.

Poetry is quite possibly one of the most beautiful forms of art and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a perfect, easy-to-use example of why.  I like to use the tired analogy of poetry being an iceberg (complete with Titanic heading toward it), but it is an accurate analogy.  In his poem, Frost gives us a deep contemplation of one’s own existence and mortality and seems to accept and maybe even see some comfort in the finite nature of life, even if he’s not actually reached that point yet.   I give that simple analysis as a way to simply show how literature can have an underlying meaning, to get them to look at what they’re reading in a different way, and to hopefully break down barriers that they might have toward poetry.  It’s a form that shouldn’t be stigmatized the way it is and while I may not have necessarily done Mr. Frost justice, my hope is that as we dig deeper into the form, we’ll get there eventually.

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