Near the end of a long life together, a husband finds himself alone with yet “… promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
An older man, almost 90, who has come into my restaurant every Sunday for a long, long time recited to me the last stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem “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
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds 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.
I’ve come to know the man outside of work. We sometimes have lunch together, and he tells me stories of his days serving overseas in World War II, his time working on the railroad, and his career as a history professor. Last night was the first time I’d seen him through the years without his wife which was what set the table for the Frost recital. She took a hard fall last week and broke both wrists. After nine years of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, my friend was forced to place his wife of 69 years in a home.
He dined alone but seemed convivial with his regular gin and tonic and a glass of Sasyr. He sat at what was for him an unusual table away from the window. And he toiled away at the largest entree on the menu which he customarily split with his absent companion who is known to only speak to phrases: “You look good” and “I’m old”, which she repeats several times through the meal. Speaking to my own very human response to such a situation, as I passed him each time through the dining room I looked on him for moments of weakness. How does one handle such a drastic change?
I asked him how he was holding up and he hit me with the Frost poem which, because it was so resolute and recited with steel and a clenched fist, made it that much more moving.
How to interpret the poem?
While some of the interpretations I’ve read shy away from it, I mostly see death. Maybe not suicide, but an acceptance of death or of stopping, freezing, and dying. Though there is not a lot of attention paid by interpreters to the horse, Frost indicated that the horse held “the key” to the poem. “My little horse” and his rider “I” suggest a tension between ego, id, and superego as they grapple with the ever-prevalent death drive. Freud introduced these concepts in 1920 and Frost wrote his poem in 1922. The terms and the concept were not canonized at that time but both could have been describing a similar communication between the basic bestial instinct to survive and what ironically is a rational decision to destroy, stop moving, and perhaps cease living. The deep, dark mysterious woods beckon; they are the “what if” question that sometimes enters our minds. In his writing, Freud also used the metaphor of the horse as the id and the rider as the ego, though, there is no evidence that Frost was thinking about this model on those specific terms. Could have been that Frost just used this relationship as a metaphor for humans’ duality, which is similar to Freud and also similar to Jonathan Haidt’s elephant-rider metaphor. A person can want to do something destructive on one level while something else inside tries to talk them down. Noticing the departure from routine, Frost’s little horse, whose instinct is shelter and food, shook its bells to help remind the rider that he is venturing off course. But really there is no other rationalization for the rider to avoid his deep wish than some notion of “promises.” These promises can have been made to a loved one, society in general (the village), to oneself, or even to a future which will be full of promises to be met.
While the Frost poem can be interpreted many different ways, in his version my friend stressed “But I have promises to keep.” Promises to his wife who has not been aware of her surroundings for more than nine years. The sense of duty my friend feels—it is too far beyond me to understand at this point in my life. My friend is also openly atheist, and his only other remaining family live two time zones away. If he fails on his promises, he’s the only one who will notice.
Image credit: AfroDad/Flickr