Friday, August 16, 2013

Memorization Test: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost is certainly one of the more beloved poets of the 1900s. His poem, The Road Less Traveled, is printed on posters hanging in nearly every American ninth-grade classroom. That poem offers a close up look of a man who truly cut his own path through life.

This week's challenge, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of Frost's standout poems and communicates deeply to the eternal soul of the individual.

From an early age Frost, son of a newspaper editor, felt his calling was poetry. He spent all of two months at Dartmouth College before ending his formal education. He sold his first poem for $15 and was so proud of his accomplishment he marched down to his girlfriend, Elinor, to propose to her.

Frost is known for rural themes in his writing, but growing up he was a city boy. His true love of the outdoors matured when he worked at his grandfather's farm. While working there for nine years he would rise early in the morning and write what would become some of his most successful poetry. I can sometimes feel that early morning farm atmosphere when I read Frost's work. It's quiet, reverent, mysterious.

Frost went on to teach at various colleges and, despite his meager two years at university, earned over 40 honorary degrees from schools like Harvard, Oxford and Princeton. It demonstrates that while education is important, dedicated passion and vision can be just as valuable.

A man plagued throughout his life with deep personal loss (he would only be outlived by two of six children), he perhaps knew better than most the depth of the human heart. His relationship with rural life seemed spiritually mixed with his relationship with a higher power.

The poem touches me because it reminds me of important moments in my life. Every now and then we come across a simple scene; it can be a visual scenario or even just a feeling in the air, that makes us feel as though the veil between the Earth and the hereafter is much thinner than we ever thought. It's almost as if a voice whispers to our heart to remind us of a greater purpose. Frost remarked that he saw the scene in the poem as if it had been a hallucination after writing all through the night.

Even the rhyme scheme of this poem is reflective of our life here. We establish our own little routines, like the rhyme on lines one, two and four of each stanza, but some new experience comes along to further shape our lives, line three. That new line dictates our new routine until, finally, a brush with some eternal truth changes us. It's beautiful.

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 1922

You can actually see a video of Robert Frost reading his poem here. Word of warning, he is not a performer. He's a writer.
Robert Frost Reading This Poem

Also, Eric Whitacre, arguably the most genius composer of our time wrote a choral piece using this poem for his lyric. He forgot to check the copyright date on the poem though and upon the song's completion he was not legally allowed to publish. In response, a friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, was commissioned to write a poem using the exact same meter and rhyme scheme. The resulting song "Sleep" was an enormous success. However, it wasn't hard to take the words of Frost's poem and switch them out for Silvestri's lyrics so video of choirs singing the song the way it was originally intended is available. The last stanza is particularly haunting in the song.

If you have five minutes, plug in the old earphones, close your eyes and enjoy.
Listen to Whitacre's interpretation here