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The Travellers: Robert Frost, My Father and their horse-drawn journeys

  • By RSE Guest Blogger
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The Travellers: Robert Frost, My Father and their horse-drawn journeys

by RSE Guest Blogger: Douglas Allen

In reflecting upon the story of my father’s finding refuge in a barn with his horse for a night on the prairie, I think the reason Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening comes to mind is that I am intrigued by the relationship between an individual and his or her horse while on a journey. Two living entities subject to the same set of circumstances, bound together while away from home, each depending upon the other for a particular kind of assistance.

In the poem, Frost is likely travelling by means of a single horse and buggy or wagon. But we must also admit the possibility that it was by means of a sleigh. Frost is stopping “between the woods and frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year.” I have always taken this to refer to the winter solstice, about December 21st. Since the lake was already frozen, it would seem at least possible that Frost was travelling in his poem by horse-drawn sleigh.

[Aside: I have tried to keep a tradition of reciting this poem out loud while on one of my usual walks through woods in the late afternoon or early evening on, or near, this date, loving the way that Frost bends the words so that they sound smoothly off of the tongue and into the evening air.]

True, the poem is not about a horse per se, but neither is the horse simply present as a backdrop. The horse has a crucial role in the poem, and represents something more than a means of transportation. And in that role we discern one aspect of the relationship between an individual and his or her horse. Let’s explore the poem then, letting our poet lead the way:

Whose woods these are, I think I know, his house is in the village though”.

Frost is travelling, but he has not travelled very far from his own village. That Frost would know such a detail, that he would be able to connect these particular woods with a particular resident of the village, suggests an intimacy of knowledge and human connection. It suggests the power and beauty of community. It speaks of a stability in human relations. But instead of celebrating this community, Frost speaks instead of his attraction to solitude:

He will not see me stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow.”

The words “he will not see me stopping here,” suggest not that Frost felt that he was doing something wrong, but convey the idea of his feeling of total hiddenness, of total isolation. In this moment Frost seems to be enticed to turn away from all human connection. He is drawn by the solitude offered by snow silently falling into woods “lovely, dark, and deep.” He is drawn by the silence, by his enclosure from the view of all those in the village and in the surrounding farmsteads.

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Frost while alone in terms of human companionship, significantly still has, however, the company of his horse, to which he now turns:

My little horse must think it queer, To stop without a farmhouse near.”

Frost suggests that the horse, as his travelling companion, possesses its own knowledge about him. The horse knows that Frost’s travels were usually contained within the confines of the village and the surrounding farmsteads. The horse has itself a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of what is proper, usual. Frost suggests that the horse knows that usually when he ventures into the countryside he goes to a farmhouse to visit a neighbour, a friend, or a relative. Frost also suggests that the horse knows that this remaining alone, apart from village and farm, in the evening, darkness falling, is somehow an aberration. Frost does not usually stop where there is no human connection to be made or nurtured. Indeed, Frost understands the horse as asking a key question of him:

He gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake,

The horse in Frost’s thought is given an intimacy of relationship with the traveller. Frost understands his horse, but Frost portrays his horse as also understanding him. Frost is suggesting that the horse is asking him why he is tending to solitude?

Thus, the task of drawing Frost back into human society is given to the horse. It is the horse that gives the warning of pursuing a too total isolation. It is as though the presence of the horse, and its shaking of human-made bells, are the reminder Frost needs to not venture too far into a solitude that takes him away from his human fellows. The horse, in effect, asks the question that Frost hesitates to admit. The horse, and what it symbolizes, thus helps to pull Frost back from his flirtation with solitude, back to within the safety of human community. The horse, in this sense, once more, becomes an extension of human community.

The horse is strangely both part of the solitude that Frost so longs for, but at the same time represents the human community that Frost is estranged from. Frost allows his reader to conclude that in some sense the horse is looking after Frost, both by transporting him and by asking him the right questions. But Frost also has the responsibility of looking after his horse. And I think this is another reason why I thought of this poem, at least in part, because it reminded me of the responsibility that my father had to look after his horse in his predicament of finding himself too far from a village. 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep…”

The woods are lovely dark and deep”… they seem to have for Frost almost a hypnotic aspect. Here, then, for Frost was a moment of peace, when the demands of human society were temporarily silenced.  That perfect silence was intoxicating for Frost. To remain suspended in time, neither in the village nor at the farmhouse, but instead to be alone, determined for the moment to remain in the in-between. Indeed, this idea of being in an “in-between” state is a central one in the poem. Frost stops between “the woods and frozen lake.” He is for the moment in a space all his own, neither at one or the other.

But Frost realizes that this isolation, this giving of oneself over to the isolation from his fellow, from the community, indeed even from himself, is not to be. It was as though in this interconnection of village and countryside the individual was expected to remain engaged with those around him, and that lingering here, being tempted to allow oneself to be drawn into the darkness and deepness of the woods alone, was in fact a dangerous thing to do.

I would argue, moreover, that among these promises of Frost was the crucial one to look after his horse.  Frost’s “promise” and obligation to look after the horse is a key commitment which draws him out of his entrancement with a solitude of despair. Frost has by his husbandry of the animal made a solemn promise to care for it. Indeed, Frost’s entrancement with the attractiveness of the dark void of the woods is brought into direct confrontation with the common sense world of the horse. The horse represents the necessity of remaining in the world of responsibility and work. The horse is ultimately Frost’s bridge to his own human community.

Frost’s entrancement with the attractiveness of the dark void of the woods is brought into direct confrontation with the common sense world of the horse. The horse represents the necessity of remaining in the world of responsibility and work. The horse is ultimately Frost’s bridge to his own human community.

Aside: The human attraction to such isolation has, of course, a long history. We need only think of St. Anthony. The Egyptian desert was the attraction for him and for all those who sought to emulate him. But such a search for eremitical isolation came to be regarded as especially dangerous. In my view, it would seem that Frost has captured both strands of thought in the Western tradition, the yearning for isolation and the reactive recognition of the importance of community. From another perspective, Frost captures the tension in the long held debate regarding the relative merits of the active and contemplative lives. Ultimately, Frost pulls himself away from the contemplation of the woods in order to re-engage with his active life in which his promises had to be kept. (See for example, C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, New York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., 1989)

And perhaps this is our first discovery of the healing power to be found in the relationship between an individual and his or her horse. The horse represents an obligation to look after something beyond the self. The horse represents in the poem the obligation to return to the human community, to return to the world of responsibility and the keeping of promises. It also represents part of the means to do so. It represents the need to move back when we have drifted too far from our fellow, either physically, or metaphorically by too much time spent on devices away from real and grounded human connections.

The horse moves an individual’s heart to act with kindness because of its own generosity to perform work that ultimately fulfills human obligations and commitments. It remains a steadfast servant and friend. The horse draws Frost, as it draws each of us who will allow it to, back into the world of the everyday, the world of common sense, the world of our own humanity.


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Who is Douglas Allen?

Douglas Allen - Red Scarf Equestrian Guest BloggerDouglas is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. He is also a writer and is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.

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