Improving Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

By Maria Moss

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!

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Below you’ll find a few exam­ples writ­ten by stu­dents in my “Cre­ative Writ­ing” seminars:

Jhan Ara­ja
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.

Joeli­na Delphin
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.

Jason Fra­nia
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.

Joce­lyn Homadi-Sewor
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.

Mer­le Schmidt
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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