August 2023

David Alpaugh



Robert Frost's celebrated poem debuted 100 years ago in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, New Hampshire. Although his poetic career coincided with the increasing acceptance of "free verse" among his contemporaries, Frost remained passionately committed to metrical poetry, famously saying, "I'd just as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down."

English is an accentual language that emphasizes the most meaningful words and syllables. That's why those who know Stopping by Woods will remember it when presented with its accented words and syllables but will likely be puzzled by the unaccented ones. Although he never said so explicitly, Frost clearly understood the connection between accent and sense in English and saw that he could use iambic meter to regularize that feature and increase the power of his poetry.

Stopping by Woods is written in Iambic Tetrameter


Frost is keenly aware of the dangers in writing metrical poetry. If the poet tries to mechanically force speech into a metrical straight jacket his "speaker" will sound artificial and unconvincing, and the rhythm of the poem will degenerate into inappropriate, even downright annoying sing song.

For Frost the art of writing in meter effectively is all about marrying iambic feet to naturally sounding colloquial voices. We don't read his poems THUMPINGLY because his speakers and characters sound like real human beings. Frost's voices are always in the foreground, commanding our attention. Almost as a bonus, we enjoy the verbal music provided by the unobtrusive iambic rhythm. Our tongues glide over minimally meaningful sounds to savor the more meaningful ones. What Frost called "the sound of sense" provides the musical "beat" for his poetry.

Most of Frost's poems are written in what he called "loose
iambic," wherein he substitutes trochaic (DUM da) or anapestic (da da DUM) or spondaic (DUM DUM) feet, here and there, for expressive effect or to break the monotony of relentlessly regular meter.

But full regularity, what Frost called "strict" iambic, is exactly what he needs to power Stopping by Woods. This is a poem about pausing, about interrupting one's forward progress to appreciate beauty. The regular, musical rhythm lulls us quietly, into a serene, meditative mood. We are entranced, along with the speaker, by the beauty of the scene, seduced by snow and darkness slowly obliterating all signs of life. In enjoying all that we gravitate subconsciously, ever so slightly towards what might be called a death wish.

But there's a simpler, more practical consciousness in this poem—the farmer's "little horse." who intuitively feels that something is amiss.

The horse's mission is to faithfully bear his master from one place to another. The weather's cold, the lake is frozen, and it's the darkest evening of the year. Stopping to enjoy the beauty of a wood in snowfall is not something animal consciousness can comprehend. His experience tells him that it is "queer" to stop beside a wood for no apparent reason.

 He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

Shake, with its consonantal "k," is the most heavily accented, emphatic word in the poem. We are shaken out of sleep by a concerned mate or friend or drill sergeant. It is almost as if the speaker's horse, concerned for his master, acts as his alarm clock. What's going on here? Why have you stopped. It's snowing! It's freezing cold! Let's get on with it! All of that is implied in the ringing of his bells.

The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The lullabying melody of "easy wind" and sleepy "downy flake" ("downy" chosen because down is in the pillows where we lay our heads at night). Our speaker is gently jolted back into his biographical life—where he has a farm, a home, a family and "promises to keep." The "woods are lovely, dark and deep," and he continues his journey with some reluctance, knowing he has many more years to live before relaxing into the sleeplike peace of death.


   A Snowman embraces a statue of a young
Robert Frost reading his poetry on
the Dartmouth Campus


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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2023 David Alpaugh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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