“…Dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
That last profoundly mysterious verse from Robert Frost’ great poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, came to mind as I walked the dogs down Cathedral Drive just after sunset.
Great poems come in different ways: in some the wording is complex, thoughtful, and for some readers, obscure to a degree or more regarding the meaning. In others, like Stopping by Woods, the wording is simple and straightforward, while seeming to be perfectly well-chosen. It’s as if the poet doesn’t want the words – too many, and too heavy – to get in the way. I think it’s true to say a great poem often essentially writes itself. The words come on a wave of inspiration, and the poet has a sense they are merely the vessel through which the words flow. The same goes with great music. Still, there may be skillful work to do, to carefully polish the gem without ruining it. Stopping by Woods is that kind of great poem, and a miracle of words because so much of what it says is without words.
The opening line, for example, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I go back to that time and time again, as I did this evening, knowing full well what it’s about in my heart and soul, after almost 80 years of life on this little jewel of a planet: so wonderful, so troubled, so joyful, yet so terribly heartbreaking and too often hard to bear.
We all grow weary, do we not? It is the tragic sense of life, my children, my friends, my fellow member of the human family. We all share it, one way or another, and we all have our own way of dealing with it, or not.
So yes, no doubt there is a tree, under which a man could lay down and find some rest, snow and cold or not. Yes, it is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” to quote Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Now there’s a poet, Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about ‘the tragic sense of life’ and all the bittersweet rest of it, to be sure.
In Stopping by Woods, Frost finally speaks of having “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” His repetition of that last line is the most perfect expression of the mood, the fate we all share, the need after all to “keep on keeping on,” as many of us often say in our plain-speaking way.
What I saw that helped me feel hopeful about keeping on, and hopeful for what tomorrow might bring for the world in general, was the line of setting-sun light on the horizon, beyond the woods, below the clouds.
I took it as a sign. One never knows what the next moment will bring, something good, something wonderful, a new day in every sense of those two, simple words.