And miles to go before I sleep…

Here, I want to share with you a little story about Keats as presented by Stephen Fry, but first a little poem written by Robert Frost:

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.

by Robert Frost (found here)

Frost’s poems are critiqued in the “Anthology of Modern American Poetry”, Oxford University Press, where it is mentioned that behind a sometimes charmingly familiar and rural façade, Frost’s poetry frequently presents pessimistic and menacing undertones which often are not recognized nor analyzed. (read more about him here)

And now I’ll let Stephen Fry speak:

“When Keats was a teenager (so the story goes) he came accross a line from Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Not even a line, actually: a phrase:

…the sea-shouldering whale.

some versions of the story maintain that Keats burst into tears when he read this. He had never known before what poetic language could do. He had no idea it was capable of making images spring so completely to life. In an instant he was able to see, hear and feel the roar, the plunging, the spray, the great mass and slow colossal upheaving energy of a whale, all from two words yoked together: ‘sea’ and ‘shouldering’. From that moment on Keats got poetry.”

Stephen Fry  – The Ode Less Travelled (2007 edition, page 308)

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2 Responses to And miles to go before I sleep…

  1. Agnusstick says:

    The little deep Frost-shouldering horse is more poetic for me than a lovely deep dark-shouldering forest, though in our country this kind of poem might be considered naïve (or pashunistic / pasturizing / pastorrising). Yet this kind of epilogue is definitely out of our mindset, because of the promises to keep before we get some sleep — could be a rather promise-forgetting sleep. It’s a cultural collision between ballads, I guess. Is a horse greater than a sheep? Is a promise-keeping farmer greater than a shepherd? Abel was, and to what avail… Poetry goes on in spite of us reality-shouldering little humans.

    • sam says:

      I know cultural differences can be spotted even in a poem. Our beloved Romanian ballad Miorita still reflects a mentality which we claim to be only ours.
      There is this ambiguity of the last four lines here that are haunting me. They give the picture of a troubled soul torn between the temptation of finding peace in the solitude of the forest ahead and the curse of not being strong or weak enough to forget about duty.

      I don’t know, I can’t decide what’s more rewarding: the miles ahead or the sleep after…

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