Episode Two: Miles to Go Before I Sleep
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.
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
No one evokes loneliness quite like fêted backwoods poet, Robert Frost. No one better captures the ambivalence of nature toward mankind’s agenda or his fraught inner life. His vernacular is simple, his images direct. His meter aspires to what critic Randall Jarrell lauds as “the rhythms of actual speech.” Such a snowcapped mountain on the American literary landscape is this rustic sage from Vermont that we often carry snatches of his verse in our heads, unaware of their pedigree. Do we not all think of “The Road Not Taken,” when contemplating life’s crucial intersections?
Like many great popular poets, beneath the sonorous lilt and “accessibility” of his work lodges a hard chestnut of hidden meaning. What may read superficially as an enchanting pastoral ode to rural New England abounds upon closer inspection with some of the most haunting allusions to death in the language. In the poem from which this episode’s title comes, who can deny that the narrator’s implied reluctance to turn away from woods “lovely, dark and deep,” despite having “promises to keep,” bares the chilling cognitive music of one longing for death? And while there are as many ways to unpack a poem as there are readers to unpack it, the poet himself once said, “a poem begins with a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” Clearly, between the woods and the frozen lake, a great deal more is going on than word painting.
Frost was on intimate terms with loss. The family grave marker in Bennington Old Cemetery reads like a roll sheet of untimely passing. His father died of tuberculosis when Robert was only eleven. Cancer claimed his mother not fifteen years later. His sister perished miserably in a mental institution. Of the six children born to Frost by wife Elinor – who herself succumbed to breast cancer in 1938 – only two survived him.
So for all that his style blends traditional forms with more modernist conceits, the age-old thorn of mortality drives his vision. The titles alone of certain poems attest to this: “Home Burial,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” “To Earthward,” “Acquainted with the Night.” Frost was obsessed with death, the meaning of grief and our prospects in a cold, unfeeling universe.
Though I find nowhere in his oeuvre an explicit reference to the supernatural, save “The Witch of Coös,” I don’t think it unduly eccentric to suggest his overarching project bears much in common with the function of a good, hearth-side ghost story. The very idea of ghosts underwrites our contract with life and reminds us achingly of the hoped-for miles ahead before sleep.
“He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him / How could that be – I thought the dead were souls, / He broke my trance. Don’t that make you suspicious / That there’s something the dead are keeping back? / Yes, there’s something the dead are keeping back.”
- From “The Witch of Coös.” 1922
Death is the Big Fear. The one all other fears reduce to. We’re hardwired to see every threat in terms of how it weakens our inevitably tenuous grip on life, metaphorical or otherwise. Even fear of rejection is at base a potent throwback to our ancient instinctive certainty that expulsion from the tribe spells annihilation in dark woods. When I feel a surge of anxiety at the thought of public speaking, it’s because my overworked amygdala – that factory of panic – cannot distinguish between the threat of death and the countless metaphors we deploy to help cope with it. That’s irony for you. The clever veil in which we shroud death becomes, by association, as strong a trigger as the real thing.
Enter the ghost, who, like the plaintive jangle of harness bells amid the woods’ airy silence, gives us a sharp, wakeful reminder of what we must do. For these dark and lovely woods are an almost irresistible summons to oblivion, the promises our frayed ties to a life – or afterlife – we feel obligated to honor for fear of the alternative.