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Realism in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

Romantics and Transcendentalists believed that a person could transcend society by returning to nature, preferably in isolation. In reaction to this genre came the Realists, who wanted to depict things as they really were in their writing. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a fine example of realistic poetry reacting against the former trends of romanticism and transcendentalism. Frost’s essential message in this poem is to reject entering or remaining in the snowy woods, symbolizing a rejection of the Romantic aesthetic.

In the first stanza the speaker flirts with the appeal of the woods. The opening line, “Whose woods are these I think I know,” suggests an inability for one to be truly isolated, as nature has become private property (1). At the same time the owner of the woods has a house in the village, so he has opted to reside with society rather than in isolation. The speaker considers the possibility of private isolation in the woods: “He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow” (3-4).

The horse in the 2nd and 3rd stanzas as a representative of nature suggests an unnaturalness to remaining in the woods: “My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near” (5-6). Used to the routine of labor, the strange act of stopping with no clear purpose causes the horse to give “his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake” (9-10). Hard-working and useful, the horse cannot understand the utility of stopping by the woods when it is accustomed to working.

Even so, the calmness of nature still appeals to the speaker: in contrast to the horse’s bells, “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake” (11-12). Finally in the 4th stanza the speaker reconciles the appeal of nature with his obligations to society. Although he still finds the woods “lovely, dark, and deep,” he ultimately rejects entering the woods (13). He has “promises to keep,” which suggests a contract with other people in society (14).

His obligations to keep these promises draw him away from the Romantic appeal of the snowy woods. In fact he has a lot to do yet: “miles to go before I sleep” (15-16). To sleep suggests inactivity or uselessness to society. He would be sleeping or shirking his responsibilities to remain in the woods, but he would rather “stay awake” and keep his promises. Frost’s realism in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” rejects the theme of meritorious isolation in nature that Romantics and Transcendentalists upheld.

Frost places the speaker at a crossroads throughout the poem, between the beautifully described woods and his promises. This crossroads represents the moral conflict between Romanticism and Realism. As the speaker chooses to keep his promises, Frost chooses the Realistic aesthetic over the old traditions of Romanticism.

Work Cited

Frost, Robert. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2003. 1891.

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