Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Rubaiyat Stanza, Iambic Tetrameter, and bears, oh my
You may or may not have noticed that "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" has a nice ring to it, almost like a song. There's rhythm and there's reason, and even some rhyming in this poem. Composed of four four-lined stanzas, this poem is a classic example of the Rubaiyat Stanza. Do not be scared by the number of vowels in that word. "Rubaiyat" is a beautiful Persian word for "quatrain," which means a stanza composed of four lines. The Rubaiyat Stanza has a rhyme scheme of AABA. Let's take a look:
Whose woods these are I think I know. A
His house is in the village though; A
He will not see me stopping here B
To watch his woods fill up with snow. A
My little horse must think it queer B
To stop without a farmhouse near B
Between the woods and frozen lake C
The darkest evening of the year. B
He gives his harness bells a shake C
To ask if there is some mistake. C
The only other sound's the sweep D
Of easy wind and downy flake. C
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. D
But I have promises to keep, D
And miles to go before I sleep, D
And miles to go before I sleep. D
What are all of those strange letters in bold, you ask? Well, we (along with other scholars) like to pick poems apart and look at how they work and at how they sound. When poems contain lines that rhyme with one another, we like to map out these rhyme schemes, so that we can see what words are rhyming with each other. You'll notice that the first two lines and the last line of each stanza rhyme together, whereas the pesky third line introduces a new rhyme altogether. When the next stanza begins, three of the four lines rhyme with the third line of the previous stanza.
Have we thoroughly confused you? Take a look at "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" (1-4). In this case, "know," "though," and "snow" all rhyme together, but "here" is like the ugly duckling of the group, not fitting in. Fortunately, "here" rhymes with the first, second, and fourth lines in the next stanza. That's just the way a Rubaiyat stanza works. You'll notice that there's an exception to this rhyming business in the final stanza. In this grand finale of a stanza, each line rhymes together – no new rhyme is introduced. In this way, we know the poem has come to an end.
Let's talk about rhythm. If you've heard about or read any Shakespeare, the word "iambic pentameter" might ring a bell. Shakespeare liked to write most of the lines in his plays with a particular rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. His lines usually have ten syllables, or five pairs of syllables (pentameter). Frost's lines in "Stopping by Woods of a Snowy Evening," however, have eight syllables. Frost uses iambic tetrameter (think Tetras=four). Because it has a regular rhythm, and because each line only has eight syllables, the poem moves along at a brisk pace. It's a very neat and tidy poem. Look at the syllables in the first line (stressed syllables are in bold font): "whose woods these are I think I know." The iambic (unstressed/stressed) nature of these lines is what allows us to hear this poem in the way that we've been hearing it all of our life – in that slightly sing-songy way.
Call us crazy, but we went ahead and counted every word in this poem: 108. Out of those 108 words, only 20 have more than one syllable. In other words, this poem is built mostly of monosyllabic words. What does that mean exactly? Well, we're not quite sure, but monosyllabic words do help to keep up the pace, and they also seem to make the poem sound simpler than it really is. No fancy schmancy, New York Times crossword puzzle words clutter up this poem; and yet, we could argue about it's meaning until the cows come home. It's that multi-dimensional.