I was a teenager, still at school, when I first read this poem. I’d never seen snow filling up woods in the early dark of a winter’s evening. I’d never been so deep into a forest that I could no longer be sure of the way out. Never walked beneath snow-laden branches in the moonlight, with the cold sharper and clearer than my sight and with all sound softened as if swallowed by the night.
And yet the poem spoke to me. How could it not? Who could resist that last verse with its mesmeric alliterations, mysterious promises and the repetition of the last line sounding like a ghostly echo in my imagination?
I loved the poem but I had no idea what it meant. Being young and hungry, I didn’t let that bother me. What I didn’t know, I made up. I imagined the rider charged with doing something important and probably secret, maybe even dangerous and stopping by the woods ‘lovely, dark and deep’ for one last moment of peace and beauty before risking all to keep his promises.
What a rich inner life I lead, unconstrained by experience or knowledge.
I’m in my mid-sixties now and, although the text of the poem remains the same, I have changed and so has the way I hear this poem.
Now I pay more attention to the fact that the rider is not in the woods but on a path ‘between the woods and frozen lake‘. It’s a path his horse knows and expects to continue along, and doesn’t ‘think it queer‘ until they come to a halt. It seems to me now, that the promises that must be kept are most likely to be routine obligations, necessary but unsensational, that the rider often meets by travelling along this path. And in the repetition of the last line, I hear now not a ghostly echo but a weary sigh of resignation.
For I’ve been to the woods in the snow and the dark and I know their silent song. I’ve driven through beautiful landscapes that I have no time to pause and admire because I had promises to keep. I know how it feels to ‘have miles to go before I sleep’ and yet to go anyway.
The thing that’s changed for me most, is my reading of the rider’s motivation for ‘stopping by woods on a snowy evening’ where he knows he cannot be seen and when he knows he already has too many miles to go before he can sleep. I think those woods, ‘lovely, dark and deep‘ represent a temptation to step off the path, to deviate from his routine, to release himself from his promises and to lose himself in that silent trackless darkness. I wonder how tired he is? I wonder if he’d like to step into the woods and not come out again? I admire him both for stopping and for choosing to go on.
The same text. The same reader. A different reading.
When you were a child, was there a wall or a doorway where your parents measured your height and left a mark and a date to track your growth? Today, it seems to me, that this poem is like that wall or doorway. I can see where my teenage self left a mark and the mark that I’d make now. I hope the difference measures growth and not just world-weariness.