Poetic Sound, Language Learning, and Meaning
This poem is so beautiful in its images and depiction of universal human experience. But we’re going to start with a kind of surface-level analysis of its sound and rhyme and meter. Why do all that analysis? Why does it matter what the meter or rhyme scheme is, or how we label it? (Besides the fact that it might be on a test!)
Well, in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter. You can read the poem and enjoy it without naming its meter. But I think it’s like any literary device that we stop and take time to notice: a certain amount of analysis, of understanding what the poet is doing, or how the poem works, can add to our appreciation of it. When you understand the tools and possibilities of poetry, you understand and appreciate its artistry. You notice things that add to your enjoyment.
And, even more important for the langauge learner, you can focus in on elements of language that can add to your learning and appreciation of English. In this poem, for example, by taking a moment to analyze the rhyme scheme, you’ll be more aware of the sounds of the words as your ear tunes to the rhyming sounds in English. You’ll feel the beats, the syllables, and you’ll hear the rhythm of this particular combination of English words. As you listen and feel the beats, the rhyme, the sounds of the words, your ear absorbs elements of language you might not even be aware of, and you practice listening closely — to the language itself and not even just grasping the literal meaning as you would in conversation.
So let’s look at how we can talk about these elements in poetry, and then, as you read later, hopefully your knowledge will add to your enjoyment of the poem.
Form, Meter, Rhyme in ‘Formal’ Poetry
Let’s begin by scanning the form of the poem. This is a good practice when reading any poem, but it’s especially relevant when the poem is in a clear form, as this one is. Meaning, it has the same number of lines per stanza, the lines look pretty much the same length, and I can immediately see regular rhyme. So I’m going to look a little closer to see what’s going on before I start reading the poem.
I see four stanzas (sections). Each has four lines. I can see, without even reading, there is a rhyme scheme: The first two lines rhyme, and the fourth line rhymes with those. The third line varies.
Do you see any other patterns of rhyme when you skim the poem?
Oh – I see that the unrhymed third line becomes the next rhymed sound in the following stanza. So, “here” in the first stanza then rhymes with “queer,” “near,” and “year.” Then the sound of “lake” moves to the next stanza. Do you see that?
Ok, now that I’m skimming, I’m interested to see if this poem has a regular meter, as the lines seem the same length, and I can already hear a regular rhythm, almost like beating a drum, even just in the first line.
To determine meter, we count the number of syllables in a line. How many in these lines?
I count 8 syllables per line.
Then, we try to feel the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. If you read the first line, which syllables are stressed (the beat of the drum) and which are unstressed (the ‘upbeat’)?
Here is what I came up with: Notice the markings of stress (the slash) and unstress (the “u” shape).
Do you see the same pattern in the other two lines of this stanza?
Just for “fun,” what would you name this meter, taking into account the number of syllables per line, and the stress pattern? Remember 8 syllables per line, unstressed/stressed pattern. Use this page to find how to label this meter.
Read to the end of the lesson or scroll down to see the answer!
Read the Poem!
Read several times, out loud if possible, and remember to feel those beats and listen to the sound of the poem. Where does it sound harsh or soft? Where does it feel rhythmic, and are there any places that break the pattern?
Who is the speaker?
Let’s start with who’s speaking and what the situation is in the poem? In the first stanza, the speaker pulls up beside ‘woods’ owned by another person; he thinks he knows the owner, and he knows the owner “would not mind” his trespassing for a moment to “watch his woods fill up with snow.” So the speaker is a man out for a ride, or going from one place to another, literally “stopping by woods on a snowy evening.” The title gives us pretty much what we need to know about this poem’s plot!
The second stanza goes deeper into this moment of stopping, appreciating. The speaker says, “my little horse must think it queer / to stop without a farmhouse near.” Is it the horse that thinks it’s strange to stop? Haha — probably not. He’s probably thinking if anyone saw him stopping here in the middle of his journey, they would probably think it’s strange. Or, maybe he’s even thinking it a little strange himself. Why am I stopping here without any destination in sight? There’s no reason to stop.
Have you ever gone out for a walk and made up a destination just to have one? Or wanted to turn around while walking but thought it would look weird? I think that’s exactly what the speaker’s self-conscious about here.
But then, in the next two lines he gets distracted by the scene, the cold, the dark. He loses himself a bit in the moment. “Between the woods and frozen lake / the darkest evening of the year.” The winter solstice — the night when Earth is tilted furthest from the sun. Those of you you live near the equator may not experience this difference as starkly. But the further north or south you go on the globe, that darkness and quiet can be very powerful. If you’ve experienced a really snowy night, the ground covered, the cold, you know it’s actually really silent, quiet. You feel almost consumed by the cold, dark, the white blanket of snow almost muffling or dampening sound. So this is where our speaker is — being taken in by that scene.
The Resolution: One Way to Answer “What is This Poem About?”
“What is this poem about?” is a basic question we probably ask ourselves in reading any poem. Sometimes in fiction we can know a lot about what this all means when we think about an action a certain character takes or the resolution of the story. The author sets up a situation, and then the way it all ends tells us a lot about how to interpret what we see.
In poetry, too, the resolution is key to interpreting the poem. Some poems have clear plots. This one does seem to have character, setting, situation. So let’s see how this one ends up.
We begin the third stanza with a shift, a startle that breaks the speaker’s lull. The horse’s bells shake — the speaker says, “to ask if there is some mistake.” Of course he’s imagining the horse’s question. Again, maybe the speaker is jolted out of that lull for a moment thinking, “Why am I here, why am I stopping? Is this strange?” But then, in the next two lines, he’s lulled again, “The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.”
I love these lines; I think they’re they most beautiful in the poem. I feel lulled by them, too. The “o” and “s” sounds, the “w” and “d,” the vowels of easy wind and downy flake. These lines are like a spell, drawing me into the dark peacefulness with this speaker. The speaker himself, uttering these beautiful lines, shows his appreciation for the beauty, just how captivating this scene is.
So, finally, the last stanza: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”: yes, they are! I feel that from the previous description. BUT. Here’s the big shift. “But I have promises to keep. / And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” So the speaker acknowledges how peaceful, how consuming this beauty is, the silence, the escape from the expectations to not be wierd or strange. But, he decides to move on. He has promises to keep, and he must continue on with the journey.
Why do you think he repeats that line “And miles to go before I sleep”?
Also, do you notice anything different about the rhyme scheme in the last stanza?
Yes, all the lines in the last stanza rhyme. Maybe it’s a sense of ending, completion. Before, the unrhymed line almost propels us forward into the next stanza where we see those rhymes again. Now, that pattern is complete.
And the repetition: To me, it almost sounds like he’s convincing himself. Or maybe the repetition is a sign of exhaustion, uncertainty if he can make it but feeling pulled along. It also sounds like he’s being lulled again. Will he move on, or will he lay down and sleep?
We don’t know. We’re left with his decision to keep his promises, to arrive at his destination.
From Literal to Metaphor, Situational to Universal
So we’ve talked about the literal situation of the poem. But it’s clear to me that this poem is a metaphor for something, points to something beyond this one situation, something that’s universal. Why do I say that? Well, it’s poetry, and ususally poetry does point to the symbolic. And if it were a story only about action, there would be more action. Literally, the whole story here is a man stops, looks at the snow, and moves on.
So what do you think this poem, the literal situation of this poem, shows?
Read it again, sit with it, and write some thoughts down. Think about how you feel, or how you’d feel if you were the speaker. What is the universal human dilemma or choice or situation here?
For me, I feel tired when I read this poem. I feel the speaker’s desire to just rest, take a moment without having to explain it or do anything or get anywhere in particular. The dark, cold pulls him in. I think I’ve felt that in life — moments where darkness, sadness, tiredness, even depression ask us to just stop. And it can be tempting to rest in them forever, to let them pull us under into the cold, even to “freeze to death.” Moments like these present some danger but also comfort. We don’t have to keep going and doing. The speaker’s choice to me feels like that choice to continue on, to keep on the journey — of life itself? — when all he’d like to do is surrender into the darkest evening of the year, the mystery. So he pulls himself out of it and on. He shifts back and forth between conscious awareness (is this strange? is there some mistake?) and being lulled into pure beauty, experience, being. And ultimately, he decides to move on, back on the road.
We all have those moments and choose to keep on the journey. Every time I’ve read this poem I’ve thought about it differently, but this time I appreciate, first, the necessity of taking the moment and stopping, and that it’s OK to take that moment and let reasoning thought and destination sink down. It makes me think about another beautiful thing in life: it is always our choice to continue on. Life asks of us that choice, our own will.
Now that you’ve read, think back to our beginning discussion about the rhythm and sound and rhyme and meter of this poem. How do those elements make this poem what it is? How do they contribute to its effects?
Also, here’s your answer to the question at the beginning:
Answer: Iambic tetrameter!
To me, the sound, rhythm, rhyme is so important to this poem. The rhyme and steady iambic rhythm helps create that peaceful lull we talked about. End-line rhyme tends to give poems a sense of completion — and the rhyme does that here. Things feel like they’re moving along at an even rhythm and feel complete, fit together, at the end of each stanza. The speaker’s lines are almost all the same length — if they were shorter, longer, alternating, there would be more of a jolting pattern that would make the poem feel so different, not the smooth, soft experience it is.
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