Charlie Dowden 05/11/09
Compare Two Robert Frost Poems, Focusing On The Ideas That He Presents And How He Presents Them
‘The Road Not Taken’ and ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ are two poems by the American poet Robert Frost. The poems were both written in the early 20th century and as a result contain many features, typical of a poem at that time. The poems concern an encounter with nature and similarly are both set in woods although one is an autumnal wood and the other, as the title of ‘Stopping...On A Snowy Evening’ suggests, is set in deepest winter. It is also known that one of these woods is set in England whereas the other is in America. Furthermore, the poems concern a journey or a travel of some sort. However the journey in ‘The Road Not Taken’ is undertaken on foot whilst the other is on horseback. Both poems are a first person narrative which suggests that it might be a personal experience of the writer, especially as they feature decisions that the narrator has to take.
The ideas explored by Frost in the two poems contain many similarities and differences. As previously mentioned, both poems concern a journey. In 'The Road Not Taken' the narrator, possibly the poet himself, is faced with a fork in the path of a 'yellow' wood. He spends a while judging which path he should possibly take and there is the feeling that, whichever road he takes, it is for good and he can’t turn back and choose the other one. He thinks properly about this and tries to see ahead as he says he “Looked down one as far I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth”. This implies that the traveller is trying to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead before actually undertaking the route, he may be apprehensive as to what is around the corner. In 'Stopping...', the narrator similarly has to make an important decision about where to go next. However it isn't a question of which route should be taken, but whether he should stay there, or move on. The narrator could quite happily spend longer there to, “Watch his woods fill up with snow”. However he knows that he must move on as he has “Promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep”. It is as though the narrator is transfixed by the beauty of the snowy woods, but the only thing that stops him from staying there is his ‘little horse’, which reminds him that he has to keep going by giving “His harness bells a shake”.
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One common interpretation of both poems could be that they are both about independence. In ‘The Road Not Taken’ for example, the narrator looks down one path then takes the other because it has the better claim and he says, “Because it was grassy and wanted wear”. In the final stanza he mentions how he ‘took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference’ which indicates that by choosing the other path; he is being rebellious and independent to everyone else. In the other poem, it is a different type of independence; the traveller appears to like being by himself in those woods. He mentions that the only sounds apart from his little horse are, “The sweep of easy wind and downy flake”. Perhaps he is going through the woods to escape the noise of the real world and to spend some time by himself, in silent solitude.
But reading deeper into both poems, it becomes obvious that they are both extended metaphors for real life situations. The paths in ‘The Road Not Taken’ are clearly not just paths, they are a critical decision in the life of the narrator. Once he’s made this decision there is no turning back. Many people think that the title of the poem is ‘The Road Less Travelled By’ as that is the road he took and the one he spends most of the poem talking about. But as the actual title of the poem is ‘The Road Not Taken’, it is referring to the road or decision that he didn’t take, the one that was mentioned in the 1st stanza. And perhaps when he says in the final stanza, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence”, it is implying some sort of regret about choosing the ‘less travelled road’. This is when he is looking back on his life as an old man, as he took the decision when he was much younger. While it is possible that this Robert Frost’s personal experience, it seems unlikely, as whilst ‘The Road Not Taken’ is about making an important decision early in life; “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ suggests that it is an extended metaphor about old age and death. The traveller could in fact be an old person and the ‘frozen lake’ could be referring to death. The traveller longs to stay in the woods that are ‘lovely, dark and deep’ and the only sound apart from the ‘easy wind and downy flake’ are tempting to him. But his little horse is his connection to life, and by giving his harness bells a shake he reminds the traveller that stopping here is a mistake. In the end the traveller accepts that staying in the woods is not the answer, because he says he has “Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”, which can be translated as he has lots of things left to do in his life yet.
The form and structure of both poems are crafted to suit each need. Both poems have a very disciplined and regular rhyme scheme. In ‘The Road Not Taken’ there are eight rhyming sounds but in ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ there are just four; queer, though, shake and keep. This rhyme scheme is typical of an early 20th century poet; as they tended to go against the elaborate wording used in Victorian poems. The rhyming words are predominately monosyllabic in both poems, which adds to the simplicity and captures the repetition that was Robert Frost’s intention. Another common trait is that both poems are a first person narrative as ‘I’ is often used, in ‘Stopping…’ he says, “Whose woods are these I think I know” and in ‘The Road Not Taken’ he says, “I shall be telling this with a sigh”. As previously mentioned it implies that it is possible that the poems are talking about a personal experience of Frost; he wrote about walking through autumnal English woods with a friend around the time he wrote ‘The Road Not Taken’. Enjambment is used frequently throughout both poems. In ‘Stopping…’ this line, “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake”, are split into two. The use of enjambment is a technique which is used to disguise the simplistic use of rhyming words, making the poem seem more complex than it actually is. In ‘The Road Not Taken’ and ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ the lines are generally 6 to 8 words long. This is to add to the disciplined structure of Frost’s poems and it keeps a regular rhythm and pace going.
Frost had to carefully consider the language used in his poems. Alliteration and repetition are two techniques used in both poems. In the fourth stanza of ‘Stopping…’ the last line is repeated, “And miles to go before I sleep.” By repeating this line it adds more emphasis to it and illustrates an ambiguous ending to the reader, which can be interpreted however the reader feels necessary. In the other poem the first line of “The Road Not Taken’ is repeated again in the fourth stanza, “Two roads diverged in a [yellow] wood”. Elsewhere in the poem, in the fourth stanza there is the line, “Somewhere ages and ages hence”. Repeating the word ages adds to the sense that it will happen a long time in the future. “Ages and ages”, is also the only alliteration found in that poem. In ‘Stopping…’, the sibilant alliteration, “Sound’s the sweep”, is used when the narrator is describing the woods. Both poems are very descriptive and this enables the reader to form strong mental images. In ‘The Road Not Taken’, Frost portrays a visual image of an autumnal setting. The ‘yellow wood’ and ‘leaves no step had trodden black’ implies that the trees are shedding their leaves. In ‘Stopping…’ the use of adjectives such as lovely, dark and deep and the fact that it is ‘the darkest evening of the year’ provides us with a good mental image. Frost makes use of another common feature of early 20th century poetry, the frequent use of monosyllabic words such as in ‘The Road Not Taken’, “And looked down one as far I could”, which reflects the simplicity of the word choice he has chosen. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is full of contradiction as in the second stanza he mentions that the paths are ‘just as fair’ and ‘about the same’. He later decides in the fourth stanza though that he took ‘the one less travelled by’ thus capturing the undecided nature of the traveller. He seems regretful about choosing that path as he says, “I shall be telling this with a sigh’, although he contradicts himself again by saying that it has made all the difference after all.
After just one read of each poem ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ is, in my opinion, a lot easier to understand. The language is easier, it includes lots of descriptive words to help you piece together a mental image and the overlying story of a person pausing his journey to look at the woods is simpler. Perhaps that is why ‘Stopping…’ is more common in children’s anthologies. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is more commonly misinterpreted because many people believe that it’s title is ‘The Road Less Travelled By’. But I found that once the extended metaphors had been unearthed it was ‘Stopping…’ that was far more thought provoking as many people do not realise that it is about old age and death. It is quite a sad poem as the person is talking about how welcoming the peacefulness of death is. Was the person in ‘The Road Not Taken’ really walking through woods and was the traveller in ‘Stopping…’ really on a long journey. Robert Frost’s ambiguous endings have completely changed how we think about these poems, and that has made all the difference.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
There are some good points in this essay, particularly when looking at the structure of the poems. When comparing two texts it is important to identify key differences and similarities and to fully consider the intended effects of these comparisons. This essay considers the meanings of the titles which is important when looking at poetry; it also helps to always look at the beginnings and endings of poem as analysis of these points can help understanding of a poem.