“But I have promises to keep . . .”

The meaning of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the woods on a Snowy Evening” has long been debated because of what comes after the above: “and miles to go before I sleep.” Many scholars have contended that Frost was talking about suicide because of the use of the word “sleep,” with sleep long being associated with the image of death, especially by the romantic poets. But I have never read this particular poem with dark images in mind:

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.

I have always loved this poem because I can relate to the imagery: a traveler stops in the woods for a moment to take in the beauty of the snow falling, the frozen lake, the gentle wind. I have been out on a snowy evening much like this when there was very little sound, just the crunch of my shoes in the snow. It was when I lived in Blacksburg years ago before it had grown, so there were still places where there was absolutely nothing around except trees. The snow had been falling all day, but by evening, it was falling lightly. It was beautiful. There were drifts; trees were covered. We walked up a hill and looked out and just watched the snow falling. It was hypnotizing. If there had been a horse and cart, he might have shaken his harness in impatience to move on because it was so easy to forget everything for a few minutes. It wasn’t terribly cold, and the wind wasn’t blowing, just a slight breeze now and again. I felt no need to move on, to be anywhere in particular. I just wanted to stand there and listen to the silence forever. Moments like these are stored in deep memory so as never to be forgotten.

As to the last two lines of the poem: an interlude in the woods with nature of this sort, pure, peaceful, uninterrupted, would be intoxicating and hard to leave. But if you must return to the realities of life, those who await you, those who depend upon you, those to whom you have made promises, then it is a shake of the head, and the realization that there are miles to go still before the warm bed and then sleep. And that is what I have always believed the last two lines to mean. The speaker could have stayed by the woods for hours, drinking in the beauty of the night, but at last, he had to put aside what he wanted, and return to reality and his duties, as mundane or as taxing as they might be.

Walking down that hill and returning to reality that night in Blacksburg was the last thing that I wanted to do. But there were people waiting for us, and we had promised to be somewhere, and even though sometimes promises become burdens that we just wish that we could ignore, we have made them, and so we must keep them. We spend years teaching our children this lesson, about honor, and how important their word is, how they must do what they have said they will do and follow through because it is the honorable thing. But oh, how much easier it would be sometimes to walk into those woods “lovely, dark and deep” and not look back.

I haven’t seen snow like that winter in many years, and I miss it. I miss the silence and stillness of snow. I miss looking out the window at night and seeing the blueness of the moon on the snow. I miss a lot of things, but that is one thing in particular that my heart has an ache for. Not the craziness of people driving in snow, or the wretchedness of bitter cold. Just the silence and the beauty of snow banked against trees and fences. Birdbaths frozen like small ponds. The snow in the cemetery, turning the stillness of the gravestones into beautiful statues: “downy flake” and “lovely.”