Poetry Sunday: Stopping by Woods

There’s just enough time for one final Poetry Sunday in 2007, and this one will feature another famous American poet with skeptical leanings: Robert Frost, the New Englander and national Poet Laureate whose work has become so iconic of the American experience.

Frost’s views on God are complex. In some of his letters, he calls himself “an old dissenter”, “secular till the last go down”, and said there were “no vampires, no ghouls, no demons, nothing but me”. In others, he expresses belief in and even fear of God, whom he usually identifies as the wrathful Old Testament deity Jehovah. Still, after twenty years of marriage, his wife said he was an atheist, and he did not deny it. (See Robert Frost: Old Testament Christian or Atheist? for a fuller exploration of Frost’s religious beliefs.)

What I find remarkable is that so many of Frost’s poems, when speaking of people and their relationships, are warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. Only when he turns to the subject of God does his poetry become dark and terrifying. Consider poems like “Once by the Pacific“, Frost’s famous vision of the apocalypse, or “A Loose Mountain“, which envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth like a stone thrown from a sling. I think the best way to describe Frost is as a frustrated freethinker, one who never fully shook off the religious indoctrination of his past.

Today’s poem is a classic, described by Frost himself as his favorite. It was first published in New Hampshire in 1923. In a brief description of dark, enveloping beauty, the narrator pauses during a night of travel through a wintry wood to reflect on an absent friend.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    This is one of my favorite poems. Simple, enchanting, serene. It’s an appropriate choice for this time of the year. Thank you.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Thanks, chaplain! I thought it was too appropriate to pass up, even if that other poetry site also posted it this week. :) Personally, I’m just as interested by Frost’s religious views and the way they’re reflected in his poetry. He may have been a believer, at least sometimes, but I can’t recall a single poem of his that depicts God as a benign force.

  • Randall

    This is a beautiful poem!

  • theistscientist

    ironic, that poem you cited of Frost was the favorite poem of one of the most famous Christian medical missionaries and inspired him to dedicate his life to healing the sick, in all your learning,do you know his name?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Not that ironic, I’d say. My favourite poem, which influenced my humanist philosophy of life quite wonderfully, was written by a Catholic. Stick us into poetry-land where there’s room for personal interpretation, and where we can display the things we’d rather not admit behind a screen of poetic license, and it’s not unusual for us to find unexpected overlaps.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/skepticalpoetry/ Ian Mason

    A permanent favourite (along with “The Road Not Taken”). A friend of mine who studied American literature says that “Stopping…” concerns the core theme of American writing: fascination with and fear of the forest. ???
    Any comments? Comments from Stephen King especially welcome.


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