So far I’ve urged you to wade in to a poem slowly, taking time to imagine and experience the images and the situation described. When do we begin to understand and think about the meaning, the bigger ideas, in the poem? Right now.
Let’s take a second look at Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” here. While focusing on the poem’s imagery in Step 3, you have probably been sensing the speaker’s mood all along. But now, let’s pause and get a fuller sense of the emotional tone of the poem, and how it uses both concrete and abstract language. Think first about what the speaker seems to feel and also what the text seems designed to make readers feel.
This poem’s lovely but stark imagery conveys a sense of awe at the scene’s beauty, but also loneliness and un-humanness. It is the “darkest evening of the year.” The mentioned village seems to be far from this unpopulated spot. The speaker is very attracted to this lonely scene and wishes to linger (he is “stopping” after all); yet apparently this stop is untypical for him. He feels a sense of tension and trespass, since he mentions the owner who won’t be able to see him, and senses the horse’s confusion and impatience at this unusual stop.
Taking in the emotional tone, we can now notice points where the poem’s word choices shift from concrete to abstract language. The appearance of abstract language is an important signal for readers to start thinking about what the poem means, not just bask in the experience of sound and imagery.
Concrete v. Abstract Language
What is abstract language? First, let’s define its opposite, concrete language. Concrete language is language that describes tangible things that we can detect with our senses: roses, tables, green leaves, puppy dog tails, office cubicles, Rolls Royce sedans. Concrete language references the images we have been savoring in Frost’s poem so far: frozen lake, little horse, woods, house, and village.
Abstract language, on the other hand, refers to things we can’t touch, see, or hear, things like love, freedom, hatred, or friendship. Abstract language references ideas rather than tangible objects.
Where are the Shifts to the Abstract?
Where do we observe abstract language in Frost’s poem? There is one moment in the second stanza where the speaker attributes possible thoughts to the horse. The speaker says he must “think it queer” to stop in the middle of nowhere. This little detail tells us something about the whimsy and kindness of the speaker, who is interpreting how his horse feels. It also conveys a detail of this situation: the speaker is not the sort who usually pauses to linger in the middle of business, because the horse is surprised by the stop.
The most noticeable shift to abstract language occurs in stanza 4, where the speaker observes, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” (13). “Woods” is concrete, but “lovely, dark, and deep” are more abstract words, signaling that it is time to think more about the poem’s meaning. “Lovely” is not a description of tangible qualities, since people may disagree radically about what is lovely. Rather, the word tells us that this speaker, right now at this moment, finds the scene lovely, and the loveliness is consistent with its darkness and deepness.
That is an interesting and unusual connection! (Do you think of dark, lonely, cold places as lovely?) In the next line, the speaker implies he wishes he could stay longer in this dark, lovely, lonely scene; however, he cannot, because he has “promises to keep.” “Promises” implies a connection and responsibility to other people, who are decidedly NOT present in this quiet scene, where he would like to linger.
Abstract, Concrete, or Both? The Big Sleep?
The third line repeats itself in the final line. Interestingly, “miles to go before I sleep” can be read simply as concrete language. It could mean literally that the speaker has actual miles of road to travel before the he can go to bed and rest. But repetition of the line begs for a second, more abstract, interpretation. How else can one interpret “sleep”? The mind jumps naturally to the ancient idea captured by the title of that old Bogart movie “The Big Sleep,” where sleep is another word for Death. Is the speaker so tired of everything that he is longing for death? Certainly if the speaker gives in to his wish and literally remains in the frozen scene too long, death would be the result.
Maybe this interpretation of the abstract language seems too extreme, unwarranted by the gentle tone of the rest of the poem. If so, we might read the second line as an emphasis on just how weary the speaker is, since he says twice that he has miles, and more miles, to go before all his promises are kept, and he can just rest.
Which way do you interpret these abstract lines, and why? Either way, the poem seems to show that the speaker is soothed and relieved by these quiet moments of pausing to take in the loveliness of the lonely, snowy scene. It is a pleasant or at least peaceful interlude; otherwise, he would not wish to linger.
Ready to Interpret the Meaning
We have experienced the imagery, understood the title, learned a bit about author and era, understood the dramatic situation, examined the poem for emotional tone, and interpreted the abstract language. Now we can formulate some ideas about what meanings or observations this poem conveys. We should think not just about this one busy man stopping his cart or sleigh alongside a particular snowy wood, but about the human condition in general. Through reading this poem, we remember and re-experience that common human feeling of being overwhelmed and weary– of just wanting things to stop for a while, or even to stop completely (depending on your interpretation of “sleep”). It feels a little wrong to stop to admire a beautiful scene, since that won’t fix anything or fulfill any of those promises hanging over us.
But as we have experienced alongside the poem’s speaker while reading, savoring, and unfolding this poem, it is a boon to the spirit to stop and admire something beautiful, especially a natural scene like this snowy wood that is unmixed with human personality or strife. If we had not taken the time to participate fully in all aspects of this poem, the fullness of this meaning most likely would escape us.
As much meaning as this one poem contains (and there are more qualities we could plumb!), it is a relatively simple poem to read and understand. In Understanding Poetry Step 5, I will discuss how to separate literal from figurative language. In future steps, we’ll talk more about the different figures of speech—how to notice them, and how to interpret them. This will give you tools to unfold meaning from more complicated poetic texts.
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Links to How to Read Poetry Series
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.