December 21, 2012 is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. No wonder that we celebrate the Light coming into the world during December. It’s a dark month.
As many of you know, I was a professor of English for twenty-four years, so occasionally, some of that personal history sneaks into this blog. Almost every year on this day, I think about Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” because the scene depicted occurs on “the darkest evening of the year.”
Probably only a few of you know, however, that for about a year, I was quite a Frost scholar! To complete my MA degree at the University of Mississippi in 1971, I submitted a pretty extensive thesis study of the dark side of Robert Frost. One of the traits of Frost’s poetry that attracted me was his apparent, even folksy accessibility–which easily disguised the depth of the poet’s conflict.
I know, that sounds too much like an English professor, doesn’t it! Let me show you what I mean with this very familiar poem.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
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.
On the surface, this poem appears to describe a person sleighing home on a dark night, who stops to take in the woods filling up with snow. Oh what I lovely sight, but he must be on his way because there is much more to do. What a nice little poem!
But let me lead your thinking along a different path to understanding the poem with just a few easy questions:
- Is this poem about the driver, the horse, the woods, or the snow?
- Which of these lines represents the primary dramatic tension or the “conflict” in the poem?
- “He will not see me stopping here”
- “To stop without a farmhouse near”
- “Between the woods and frozen lake”
- “But I have promises to keep”
3. If I tell you that “the woods” are almost always the scene of danger, despair, or treachery in American literature, does it change your understanding of the poem?
“The darkest evening of the year” was a day not chosen by accident.
Yesterday, I had conversations about friends whose children are threatened by divorce, about the tragedy at Newtown, about the imminent loss of aging parents, about the early loss of a dear spouse—just about the temptation to disappear into the woods, lovely, dark and deep.
It’s not the promises that I have made, but the promise in the Light of Bethlehem that offers a reason to keep traveling those miles before we sleep.
Some people make a big deal out of the fact that pagans had winter celebrations about the same time that Christians now celebrate the birth of Christ even though we know how unlikely this date is as the real time of his birth. Perhaps it is true that pagans danced around trees, gave gifts, and had some mythological character that appeared down their chimneys. That is not Christmas! At least, it is not what a Christian celebrates.
When Christians remember the birth of Jesus in December, they completely hijack and transform pagan rituals into what is real and true. You can’t take Christ out of Christmas for a Christian. You can ban the words in public, but the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! It is our breath of Life!
And so today, the 21st of December 2012, this very short day will be followed by a very long night. The darkness of the world we live in is dark and deep.
Will you go to the woods or will you take the journey, walking in the Light—the Light of Bethlehem?