Last semester, I walked into the college classroom where I taught a survey of American literature to discuss the poetry of Robert Frost.
I may have walked into the classroom with a scowl. I can’t be sure.
The first time I encountered Frost’s poetry, I was reminded of greeting cards. I believe I mentioned this to my English teacher at the time: “Isn’t it a little Hallmarky?” She told me I was missing something. I believe I mentioned this to my father, too, that night when I got home, eyeing the giant book of Frost’s poems on the shelf behind his recliner, beside the Complete Works of Thoreau and a bunch of leather-bound Harvard classics: “You like Frost, too?” I think he nodded and puffed on his cigarette.
I have been, for most of my life, somewhat of a cynic. More likely to appreciate Sexton and Plath, Eliot and Cummings, Barthelme and Brautigan, than Frost.
Perhaps I hid my feelings, smiling at my students as I whisked into that classroom, the long skirt of my dark dress swishing behind me. But I did not want to be in that classroom that day. I was exhausted. Ten weeks pregnant. Not to mention teaching an overload and advising the college literary magazine, which was about to go to press.
I was tired. A strange, chemical kind of tired. I felt drugged.
Before my husband and I conceived, after almost a year of trying, I did not fully appreciate how much pregnancy would affect me. Intellectually, I understood that my blood would become laced with hormones with fancy latinate names. Human Chronogonadotropin. Progesterone. However, I failed to appreciate just how much these hormones would change my personality. During my first trimester, my personality became disturbingly similar to that of the prototypical Victorian female hysteric. If I cried – which happened far more often than usual, as I had previously been somewhat of a stoic – I hyperventilated. I laughed like I hadn’t since childhood. And the anger: I don’t even want to admit how often I’ve gotten angry, and this from someone who was previously unable to stay mad for thirty seconds.
So there I was, at the end of class, teaching Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I started by asking the students to summarize the obvious subject matter, while we looked at the structure: there’s this guy with a horse, stopping by woods on a snowy evening, clearly. Then I asked the students to describe the setting. They pointed out the bells, the snow, the fact that it was “the darkest evening of the year.”
“Is it Santa Claus?” one of them joked.
Several students looked at her as if she had lost her marbles.
Another looked at her as if he was thinking the same thing.
“No,” I explained, trying to stifle a yawn, remembering my comment to my high-school teacher about greeting cards. “But the darkest evening of the year, that could mean winter solstice, which is December 21 – close to Christmas. You’re picking up on the wintry atmosphere. The sound of bells, the snow, the quiet trees in the forest. You’re onto something. Except – ”
Here I paused, looking over the poem to jog my memory. I had only reread it briefly before rushing to class, since I’d read it a hundred times before.
“Except – this is not a holiday poem. There’s something else going on here. Remember, Frost is famous for writing deceptively simple poems with more going on underneath the surface. What’s the deal with the second stanza? The description of the ice and cold wintry forest, I mean this is a lovely scene, so it’s clear why he’d want to stop and look for a moment. But it seems like the speaker wants to stop – for a while. Look at that business about his horse: ‘My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near… He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.’ Why does the speaker stop for long enough to worry his horse?”
“He’s tired,” someone ventured.
I nodded, encouragingly. “Why do you say that?”
I already knew the answer to this question; I already knew, intellectually, the dark undercurrents of this poem, that the speaker is attracted by the dark deep forest, the lovely quiet, a disturbing desire to lie down in the soft blanket of snow and sleep. But as I waited for the student to answer my question, my shoulders sagging with preternatural exhaustion, I saw the dark forest stretching out before me, heard the bells of a horse, the lovely strange hush of virgin snow.
“In the last stanza, he’s talking about sleep,” the student answered, finally. “Twice, he repeats it. Where you said the rhyme scheme breaks down, and something important was going to happen.”
I nodded, reading the last stanza again. Aloud.
“These 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.”
And as I read these lines, my throat constricted. My eyes teared up. For the first time, that day, I found I could feel the speaker’s exhaustion, the strange disquieting temptation to disappear into the woods.
“What happens if you fall asleep in a snowy forest?”
The room went quiet. We had read Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” the week before. I looked up at the class, watched their faces, heard the exclamations of “oh” scattered throughout the room, the Santa students looking at one another with understanding.
“There’s more to it than that, though, even. The beauty of the forest. The bells. This is a poem about wilderness, the unknown, intuition…”
I shut the anthology, clearing my throat, marveling at how much the poem had gotten to me. Apparently, along with everything else, my taste in poetry was shifting.
- And now, weeks later, having read and enjoyed my late father’s Frost collection, I can’t help but wonder if pregnancy hasn’t awakened me, somehow, from an over-intellectualized emotional slumber. If my personality was somehow deficient before, lacking the proper hormones to fully appreciate Robert Frost. Because I don’t think he’s sentimental, anymore; I think I was a cynic. And I hope, after I give birth to this baby, and my body stops producing these hormones, I can still see the dark forest stretching out before me, hear the bells, appreciate the lovely, dark, and deep of those woods.