And miles to go…

Whose woods these were I already knew — they surrounded the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, just north of Bennington.

Here’s a photo of the house:

The place is located on Route 7A, which must have been a dirt road when Frost and his family lived there in the 1920s but is now a two-lane, paved 50 mph roadway. And there’s not much in the house that actually belonged to Frost — just a sofa and a couple of bedroom dressers from OTHER houses Frost lived in.

But the place has a nice, informative display, filling the walls of two rooms, with photos, historical information, commentaries on Frost’s poetry, Frost’s own cagy comments on the commentaries, audio interviews with Frost — and, best of all, the news  that right there in the house’s dining room was where Frost sat down at the dining room table and wrote a poem you may have heard of:

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.

In the above photo of the front of Frost’s house, those two windows at the right — one now partially blocked by the tree — are where Frost looked out from the dining room and across the road to a field, also now blocked about 90 years later by a row of trees, as he wrote his poem.

As the museum exhibit makes very clear, Frost mocked critics who read too much into his poems. On the other side of the spectrum from those critics are people who think of Frost as American poetry’s answer to Grandma Moses — an updated John Greenleaf Whittier.

The critics, of course, are much, much closer to the truth, although on one level Frost was certainly a nature poet. But Frost’s poems have a somber side, both in tone and theme, and their simple beauty and plain talk often mask something disconcerting… and dark…and deep. Frost denied it, but tell me “Stopping By Woods…” isn’t (possibly) about suicide and (certainly) about death. 

I recently discussed Frost’s beautiful “The Oven Bird” with a colleague and told him I thought the poem was deep down an existential, almost Zenlike contemplation on the moment in time and point in space that’s exactly between then and now, here and there, living and dying.  

Anyway, I will never forget the feeling of knowing I was standing in the very room where Robert Frost wrote that great poem. It was the same feeling as visiting Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, and looking up at the window where she once looked out at the world, and imaging catching a glimpse of that odd and reclusive genius flitting past the pane in her long white dress.

Here’s a link to the Frost museum’s Web site, which is Frosty enough to quench the thirst of even the most devout devotee of the great poet:

You can even buy an apple-tree seedling grown from an apple tree planted by Frost himself! And so, in conclusion, not his famous poem “After Apple-Picking,” but another Frost poem inspired by apples:

A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what has made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.