Lesson #209: ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’: Reading aloud in English (and enjoying poetry at a new pace)

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.

– Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (1923)

Have you ever tried to read a poem but halfway through dropped out, perhaps because it was too dense or obscure? Maybe you tried to make sense of the literal words and the poetic meaning all at once – a process that tired you out?

Yesterday (March 26th) was the anniversary of the birth of one of the most readable poets in the English language (and one of my favourites!) – Robert Frost, an American poet (1874-1963).

We are turning to one of his poems to show a new way to read and enjoy poetry – in one word, by paying attention to punctuation, emphasis, and meaning.

These may seem like simple points, but believe me they will help you to understand and appreciate more poetry (or indeed any complex text in English) in a whole new way! Plus, you will also sound more natural as you speak English if you practice reading poems like these aloud.

Let’s take it stanza by stanza … 🪔

..

📜 #1

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.   

As you can see from the punctuation, there are only two sentences in this stanza. So let’s ignore the poetic format just for a moment and rewrite them as if they were prose (the opposite of poetic) sentences:

🖋️ 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.

✍️ What are the most important words in these lines, the words that stand out for you?

For me, they are ‘woods’, ‘think’, ‘he’, ‘watch’, ‘woods’, ‘with snow’. This is a matter of taste mainly, so you may find other words more impressive or memorable than these that I have listed.

✍️ Now go back and reread these lines (aloud, if you can) just as if you were saying them to someone in a natural speaking voice, and as if you were wondering, feeling, etc. according to the words that you consider the most important or memorable.

This is how I would read these lines (with stress on the italicised words):

✏️ 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.

✍️ TIP: Notice that you do not need to find an emphatic word in every part of the sentence, because we do not regularly emphasise every second, third, or fourth word when we are speaking English naturally!

..

📜 #2

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.   

Let’s rewrite this stanza as if it were prose (in this case, a single sentence because there is only one period/full-stop here):

🖋️ 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.

[Side note: I have added a comma between lines 2 and 3, and again between lines 3 and 4 simply because in prose this would be necessary – the last line is a clause of its own and needs to be marked as such when it is in prose format. This is not necessary when it is written in poetic format because each line ending automatically indicates a kind of change of thought or direction that is more subtle than a comma would be – a short professional proofreading tip for you!]

This is how I would stress the emphatic words if I were reading it aloud:

✏️ 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.

✍️ Try to find your own emphatic words and make sure to read it all aloud – it doesn’t have to sound ‘perfect’ but it should sound as though you are, like Frost, wondering and feeling different things as you talk).

Vocabulary: ‘queer’ here means strange or unusual.

..

📜 #3

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.   

Let’s rewrite this again, following the simple method used above:

🖋️ 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.

Here is my interpretation of the same:

✏️ 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.

Vocabulary:

harness – a physical control (usually made of leather straps) that is placed over a horse’s head and neck to control and guide it

downy flake – this describes the flakes (or light, airy pieces of snow) that are soft and downy (like the softest kind of fur – known as ‘down’ – that chicks, birds, and some animals have)

..

📜 #4

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.

Let’s rewrite this one too:

🖋️ 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.

A note first here on the poet’s tone (the sound of your voice as you speak, that reflects the meaning of what you are saying). We can imagine that the poet has been describing what he sees and experiences up till now, but in the first line of this stanza – ‘the woods are lovely, dark and deep,’ – he is talking to himself, almost daydreaming and fully absorbed in the beauty of the snow softly falling among the trees. 🌨️

So when you read the first line of this stanza, try to sound dreamy or thoughtful or ‘introverted’, until you come to the point where you gradually wake up to the reality that ‘I have promises to keep, and miles to go …’

With this in mind, I am just highlighting a few words that I would emphasise a little bit more here – but remember, the general tone of voice is the most important thing of all: all my emphases won’t matter if I don’t remember to enter into the kind of feeling that the poet wanted to express.

✏️ 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.

The ending here is a bit like a lullaby, repetitive and relaxing: ‘And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.’

I can remember hearing a good narrator (a professional who reads a text aloud and interprets it well) who read this poem, and he slowed down when he came to the very last line, almost as if he were gently falling asleep with the words still on his lips.

As you have seen, this beautiful poem talks about the short moments of wonder that we should enjoy whenever we have a chance.

For the poet, he knew that the snow would not always be falling in that memorable way, so he took the time to stop, watch, and appreciate it before moving on homeward to fulfill his ‘promises’ or commitments.

So like him, why not take time this weekend to reflect on and appreciate all you have accomplished so far? ❄️