f course the title is facetious: I certainly don’t want to – even if I could, which I can’t – improve one of the best and most anthologized poems in the English language written by one of the greatest lyrical voices of all times. What I ‘do’ want to do, however, is write about a teaching tool that initially sends shivers up every student’s back: continuing a poem, using the same rhyme scheme and meter. Once they’ve mastered the task, however, they’re quite proud of themselves – and rightfully so.
Born in California, Robert Frost was one of the great poets of the East Coast where his poems are rooted. John F. Kennedy, himself a Pennsylvanian, invited the 86-year-old Frost to his inauguration in 1961.
Frost’s characters, mostly upright New Englanders, are tight-lipped, reluctant speakers whose comments are laden with rustic wisdom. Not yet dominated by an urban, industrialized society, they bespeak the pastoral longings of a world soon to change. These characteristics fit the first-person narrator in the poem quite well. Here comes the first stanza of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (please note the interesting rhyme scheme AABA):
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.
Let’s now look at the second stanza and talk about meter and rhyme (aren’t they every student’s favorites?). The poem features a very regular meter – the iambic tetrameter (4 repetitions of unstressed/stressed syllables):
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.
The poem continues the rhyme scheme, picking up the “here” from the third line of stanza 1, using it again in stanza 2 (queer, near, year), interrupted only by the word “lake.” The meter is clear, and it’s not hard to imagine what stanzas 3 and 4 look like in terms of rhyme scheme: CCDC and DDED.
Continuing a poem is a truly creative exercise. It doesn’t only force students to reflect on the impossibility of rhyming certain words (orange!), but also makes them realize the significance of stressed and unstressed syllables. They become aware, for instance, that the word ‘sunshine’ sounds awkward if you stress the second syllable. If you can’t make it fit, you will need to find another word or be tricky and use “some shine” or “sun’s shine.”
Ok, now that everything’s clear, let’s give it a try!
At this point at the very latest, my students look at each other and then at me with a combination of disgust and disbelief.
YOU REALLY WANT US TO CONTINUE THIS POEM IN THE SAME METER AND THE SAME RHYME SCHEME?
Yes, and oops, I forgot: Your stanzas must follow the poem’s solemn, quiet, and peaceful atmosphere. Long pause. And one more thing: You’ll have about 20 minutes. (I always give them more time, but the first ones will actually be done after 15–20 minutes).
Stanza 3 continues in much the same rhythm, but just imagine how surprised students are once they find out that Robert Frost ‘cheated’ and repeated the last lines of the fourth stanza.
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.
And now listen to Robert Frost reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” – enjoy!
Below you’ll find a few examples written by students in my “Creative Writing” seminars:
I must now end my little break
Or else the snow will start to cake
But I have taken far too long
I feel the earth begin to quake.
How ill to think myself so strong –
My eyes now see that I was wrong.
My own demise is soon to come
I say goodbye with my swan’s song.
Although I know what is at stake
It is not just for my own sake:
There lives a girl in the old mill
To whom an oath I had to make.
For that I stop in winter’s chill
To wait for whom I have to kill.
Light footsteps drawing nearer now
My heart it pounds, my hands are still.
How strange this place is for a break
Of all the ways that I could take
Must this one be my final choice?
My worries I don’t have to fake.
And soon I hear an angered voice
That sound does not make me rejoice
Much colder than the snow’s his steel
The red now turns the white snow moist.
Then suddenly I feel an ache
The branches of a tree, they break
One hits me harshly on my head
A sound that makes me feel awake.
I see a shadow as it fled
My horse it follows, but he’s ahead
He shoots at me – this can’t be real!
I wake up lying in my bed.
I see some branches slowly break
And listen to the sound they make.
The weight of snow they cannot bear
So they let go for nature‘s sake.
I breathe in icy forest air
And think I maybe shouldn‘t care
For there‘s a reason I went out
To leave and find my luck elsewhere.
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