How to Pay Attention to a Poem


Lawrence Raab, Williams College's Morris Professor of Rhetoric, is the author of eight collections of poetry.
Lawrence Raab is the college's Morris Professor of Rhetoric. The author of eight collections of poetry, he is a winner of the National Poetry Series and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. Photo by Jane Howland.

Like any poem, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is best read with what Henry James called “the spirit of fine attention.” It’s about “noticing, and then noticing what you notice,” says English professor Lawrence Raab, who teaches and writes his own poetry just 22 miles from the Vermont town where Frost penned what many critics consider to be his most famous work.

“Don’t worry about the consequences until you’ve noticed all you can,” Raab says. “With this poem, or any, it’s important to avoid being reductive. A good poem resists paraphrase, refuses to let its meanings become too simple, like an answer found in the back of a textbook or a truism in a fortune cookie. No good poem, especially one as mysterious and reticent as ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ ever exhausts itself, even as it turns itself over to you, the reader. So you may secretly carry it around, discovering—perhaps by surprise, as I have—that you know it by heart and then, years later, remembering it as a kind of revelation and finding it has changed, since you yourself have changed.”

Take a look at the poem below, and then read what Raab has to say about it in the January 2012 Williams Alumni Review. (To read the text-only version, click here.)

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost

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.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from the book The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Co., copyright 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Co., LLC.