How Literary Allusion Is Used in a Well-Known Poem by Robert Frost
by Tina Blue
October 30, 2000
Allusion is when a poet directly or indirectly refers to something outside his poem. Allusions can be made to just about anything. One common form of allusion among poets is the allusion to a well-known work by another poet. When a poet makes such an allusion, he pays homage to the original poet, and also subtly incorporates implications from that poet's work into his own. Of course, the serious poet usually assumes that his reader will recognize such an allusion and understand what its potential implications are. In Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" there is probably a very subtle allusion to Dante's "Inferno," the first book of the Divine Comedy. That allusion is embodied both in the poem's rhyme scheme and in its central image, as well as in the thematic implications of that image.
For those not versed in the technical aspects of poetry, I need to explain some basic concepts. I hope the rest of you will bear with me for a moment.
Rhyme is the recurrence of the last stressed vowel and all subsequent sounds in two or more words: hit/bit;
yellow/fellow; rise/aggrandize. When the rhymed words occur at the ends of the lines, they are called (surprise!)
end-rhymes. When the end-rhymes of a poem follow an identifiable pattern, that pattern is called the poem's rhyme scheme.
We mark a poem's rhyme scheme by assigning a lower-case (i.e., not capitalized) letter to each new rhyming sound that is introduced. Thus, in the first stanza of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the end-rhymed words are "know," "though," "here," and "snow":
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.
The rhyme scheme for this stanza would be labeled aaba, since lines 1, 2, and 4 all have the same rhyme sound, while line 3 introduces a new sound. That new sound (b) becomes the predominant rhyme in the second stanza, which rhymes
bbcb--introducing a third rhyming sound in the third line:
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farm house near,
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
The third stanza rhymes ccdc:
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.
And the final stanza rhymes dddd:
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.
If we were to characterize the rhyme scheme of this poem, we would say that the poem consists of four quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming aaba bbcb ccdc dddd. (The stanza breaks are indicated by leaving a space in the rhyme scheme.)
The rhyme scheme could be further described by saying that the third line of each of the first three stanzas predicts the predominant rhyme of the subsequent stanza. The poem's final stanza, which obviously is not followed by another, has no predictive rhyme, but maintains the d-rhyme throughout.
If you are at all familiar with traditional poetic forms, you might recognize Frost's quatrains as a variation of the terza rima form used by Dante in the Divine Comedy. Terza rima has the pattern aba bcb cdc ded. . . . The "Inferno," the first book of the Divine Comedy, begins with these lines (as translated into English, which costs us the rhymes):
Midway in our life's journey I awoke
To find myself alone in a dark wood.
Who knows how I came that way . . . (1-3)
Now, it is not by any means certain, but it is certainly possible, and perhaps even probable, that Frost intends this similarity in stanzaic structure and rhyme scheme to subtly invoke Dante's "Inferno."
Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the most famous poems in the Western literary tradition. Frost, like any other major poet, knew his Dante. Even if he did not originally have in mind such an allusion to Dante's "Inferno," he would have recognized it after having written the poem, and then would have chosen either to obscure it or to leave it in his poem for his readers to notice--for he could be sure that all of his readers with a certain level of knowledge about the poetic tradition would notice the similarity.
What, you might ask, would Frost gain by such an allusion? Well, Dante's lines refer to the "dark night of the soul," the point at which the soul despairs of finding God. Frost was a well-known depressive, and many of his poems deal with the depressive's sense of isolation from normal human activity and habitation. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" has many levels of meaning, but certainly one aspect of its meaning is the persona's* sense of isolation and the lure of death. (Think of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale": "I have been half in love with easeful Death" .)
When the persona says, "He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow" (3-4), he refers to the woods' owner, but here as in other poems, such as "Birches," he means us to understand not only the woods' human owner, but also at some level God, whose "house" (the church) is also in the village. The speaker's belief that the owner will not see him stopping to watch the snow fall in the woods subtly suggests that he has somehow fallen outside of God's range of vision or concern.
By associating his poem with the opening lines of Dante's "Inferno," Frost creates resonances and implications that add depth and power to "Stopping by Woods." Allusion is also a game between the writer and the reader. Literary traditions belong to those who know them, and when a poet alludes to this shared knowledge, the reader's reaction is sort of like "getting it." We must not overlook one of poetry's great delights--that moment of recognition when the reader goes, "Heh, heh, heh, heh--cool!"
*persona = the first-person speaker of a lyric poem