Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost
Analysis: Sound Check
Think kindergarten recess meets a funeral hymn. Creepy? Yes, we know. But hear us out. With an unusual and uncommon rhyme scheme (check out "Form and Meter" section) and with only eight syllables to every line, this poem at first sounds like a little ditty that we might sing after playing a rousing game of Ring around the Rosy. However, just as we know Ring around the Rosy has connections to the outbreak of the Black Plague in 1665 England, we begin to suspect that "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" might also have a darker underbelly.
Frost was all about the sounds his poems made (check out "In a Nutshell"), believing that there is as much sense in the sounds of words as in the meaning of the words. Therefore, we must pay very close attention to the noises of this poem and to what it makes our mouths do when we read it aloud. Have you read it aloud yet? We strongly suggest you do. It's really fun. Read it aloud right now, and pay close attention to the way your mouth moves. Report back. We'll wait.
Before we begin our tour of the sounds in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," we want to introduce you to a few key terms: fricatives, sibilants, glides, and glottals. No, these are not innovative swear words or new nicknames for your little brother; these four terms come from the world of phonetics (the study of human speech sounds), and they are used to describe ways in which the human mouth makes certain sounds.
A fricative is any consonant that requires the use of lips, teeth, or tongue to utter it. A fricative usually involves the interruption of airflow as in ffffffff or vvvvvvvvvvvv. A sibilant is a kind of fricative, but it usually involves the pointiest part of your front teeth to make sounds (i.e. ssssssssssss or zzzzzzzzzzzz). A glide is a sound that is almost a vowel, but that acts like a runway to glide into a vowel (i.e. what, where, you, yeah). A glottal is a noise that is made in the back of the throat, far, far away from the lips (i.e. gggg or kkkkk). There are lots of other terms in the world of phonetics that describe the sounds we make and how we make them, but we're going to focus on these four terms for the moment.
What does all of this crazy phonetic talk have to do with this poem? Well, certain sounds are more pleasing to our human ears than others. Certain sounds are more audible than others. And certain sounds set us on edge. Humans use words and the sounds of words to influence one another. Frost uses his sounds to tell a story and to help set the mood. In the first stanza alone, there are seven w sounds: whose, woods, know, will, watch, woods, with, snow. It's a very glide-happy stanza, and our lips get a lot of action. We don't know about you, but the "w" sound is very gentle and very lulling. There is only one glottal stop in this stanza: "think." All other sounds happen in the front of our mouth, out in the open with nothing to hide.
Watch what happens in the second stanza when your mouth must articulate, "Between the woods and frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year" (5-6). We begin those lines with some pleasing w sounds in "between" and "woods," and then things get hairy when we have two glottals in a row with "lake" and "darkest." The glottals literally trip us up a bit as we have to reach all the way to the back of our throats in order to make the sounds. The k sound also seems like the sound ice makes when it breaks, reminding us of the setting. Glottal sounds are sticky.
Now look at stanza three, when the horse hopes to get his master's attention: "He gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake" (9-10). Our throats get a workout with these glottal noises, and they seem to break the lines up into little chunks.
In the next two lines, however, things change: "the only other sounds the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake." Are these entrancing, or what? Notice how much action your teeth get with "the," "other," "sounds," "sweep," "easy," wind," "downy." The alliteration of "sounds," "sweep," and "easy" creates a little hissing noise, perhaps like the sound of the easy wind. The word "flake" causes the backs of our throats to stick, like snow to the ground.
We feel like the sounds of this stanza communicate the speaker's dilemma: he is torn between his duties back at the village and the seductive calm of nature. The glottal noises in the first two lines make us feel like the horse is trying to wake his master up to reality, and the seductive teethy and "s" noises of the last two lines make us imagine just how alluring nature is at this moment.
We'll end our tour of Frost's sounds there, but believe us when we tell you that there are still many more sounds in this poem yet to be mined and interpreted. Just remember that listening to this poem is a far different (and sometimes more fun) task than reading it.