“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
“Throughout the poem—brief in actual time, but with the deceptive length of dream—we are being drawn into silence and sleep, yet always with the slightest contrary pull of having to go on.” —Reuben A. Brower, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention
Robert Frost is one of the most beloved and widely taught poets of the 20th century. Such a masterful poet poses challenges to poetry readers of any age, but especially to middle and high school students. Frost’s poems can appear deceptively simple on the surface; however, they demand an understanding of craft and structure to experience a deep reading. Secondary students can find a “way in” to the poetry of this formidable American master by using the following active reading strategies.
Poems that Tell a Story: Narrative and Persona in the Poetry of Robert Frost provides some keys to unlock poetry for secondary grade-level students by focusing on “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” published in New Hampshire, a poetry collection that won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. The activities in this lesson offer a portal to help students access Frost’s bucolic landscapes and a compass to navigate them through terrain of his symbolic language.
Know your terms
Activity 1 begins by discussing terms needed for the rest of the lesson activities. The central concept taught here is the distinction between Frost-the-poet and the speaker or persona that he creates to tell the narrative in the poem. “Persona” is a Latin term that originally referred to a mask worn by actors. Over time, this term has come to refer to the "person" who speaks in a poem. The persona is similar to a character in fiction; and, just as in fiction, we can draw inferences about the motives and personality of this character by hints and clues in the poem.
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
We can be sure that Frost thought very carefully about which details to leave in or out of the story he tells us in this poem. He deals out some of the details directly, while he keeps others close to the vest. In Activity 2, students are forced to deduce Frost’s cards by means of direct textual evidence as well as by inference drawing from the hints and clues he has left us in the poem.
As the poem opens, we find ourselves in the middle of the snow-covered woods in the dead of winter, expressing uncertainty about exactly where we are and why we need to stop. We need to discover what are the effects of the images conjured here. How does the darkness and cold and snow impact the speaker and, by default, us?
Your students will need to figure out what perspective they must to attribute to this speaker’s “little horse” that seems to “ask if there is some mistake.” A three column chart is provided for students to work all this out and notate the following:
- narrative details that are directly described in the poem;
- evidence in the poem that leads to making inferences;
- inferences that are arrived at with no supporting evidence.
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8-: Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Once the poem has been “read closely,” students may journal about this woodland experience using hints and questions raised by the evidence in the narrative. They can:
- imagine the circumstances that have brought the speaker to this place in the wood;
- speculate on what it is that compels him to stop on so cold and dark a night;
- speculate on the nature of the promises the speaker has made;
- write about the speaker's relationship to the person “whose woods these are.”
The only rule is, their inferences must have some defensible basis in the actual words of the poem.
Moving on to additional examples of Frost’s poems, students can work in groups to determine what stories are revealed through those verses. Activity 3 asks students to journal using their imagination to write their own narrative extending or revealing hidden aspects of the story being told. Their stories should be based upon the facts and inferences they found in the poem; their stories should not contradict that evidence, but may be stretched a bit to encompass their own vision.
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
Activity 4 offers a potential culminating assignment to have students deliver an oral presentation in the form of a dramatic reading with a discussion on how the speaker of a poem reveals aspects of himself through the details he/she includes or omits.
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL.8.3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.