Robert Frost, Christmas, Snowy Woods, and a Pilgrim Trail

Part of the 1623 Green Harbor Trail on a snowy day

Part of the 1623 Green Harbor Trail on a snowy day

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.

My favorite poet and one of my favorite poems. I was reminded of it today as I walked through snowy woods. The first significant snowfall we’ve had here on the South Shore of Massachusetts this winter. Seemed a perfect day to get out and enjoy the woods filled up with snow and the “sweep of easy wind.”

Reaching what is probably my favorite woodland trail anywhere, I paused to snap the above photo. This is not just any trail. Known as the 1623 Green Harbor Path, it was first worn by Native Americans, then used by the English settlers of Plymouth Colony (aka “Pilgrims”) as a means of walking from Plymouth to the settlement of Green Harbor, now Marshfield. A large portion of the trail is now covered by modern roads. But this section through the woods remains in its 17th century condition, more or less, and is fascinating to walk. I like to contemplate those early colonists in their broad brimmed hats and cloaks, walking the very same trail that I am walking.

And although it was broad daylight, the woods nonetheless felt lovely, dark and deep. Robert Frost wrote the poem in June 1922 at his house in Shaftsburg, Vermont and it was published as part of his book New Hampshire which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. According to Frost, he had stayed up all night working on other poems and around dawn, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” came to him suddenly as though in a “hallucination.” It was written, he said, “in a few minutes without strain.” He felt it was one of his best works.

This notion of a brilliant work suddenly striking a poet as if in a vision is a romantic and intriguing one. Frost’s assertion that this was so is printed in many sources. Turns out it is probably not at all true. The real story of how the poem came to him is much more melancholy, far more human, and more interesting.

According to English professor and poet Carol Frost (no relation as far as I can tell), Robert Frost described the true circumstances of the writing of the poem to a friend Arthur Bleau. Bleau himself later wrote about the conversation.

It was Christmastime and Frost had yet to break through as a popular poet. Barely eking out a living as a sometimes farmer, sometimes professor and sometimes writer, Frost had gone to market to sell some goods so that he might buy some Christmas presents for his children. He failed to sell anything…which would mean no presents. Returning to his farm that snowy evening, leading his horse, he could not bear the notion of a bleak Christmas for his children. Before reaching home, he stopped in the dark with the downy flakes falling and, as he told Bleau, “I just sat there and bawled like a baby.” Eventually, sensing some mistake, his horse shook its head. The bells brought Frost back to reality and he continued home.

The poem is so melancholy, almost haunting…it stands to reason that it would be derived from such an emotional experience rather than some instantaneous “hallucination.” But I can understand why Frost would not wish to publicize the actual circumstances.

As I stood pondering this, I too was asked if there had been some mistake. Though not by the jingling of harness bells. My companion was certainly not a horse as in Frost’s case but rather my youngest daughter. “Are you lost, Daddy?”

I laughed and said no. She has become my enthusiastic woodland walking companion, always wanting to explore further and further, even to the point where I am tired and ready to turn back. But today she was growing cold. No miles to go for me or her. Just a short cut onto the closest eastbound trail and soon we were home to piping hot cocoa for her and coffee for me.

[Source: Carol Frost, “Sincerity and Inventions: On Robert Frost,” poets.org]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

3 responses to “Robert Frost, Christmas, Snowy Woods, and a Pilgrim Trail

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