I think most of us still know the words to some poem, favourite or not, that we learned years ago in school. I have a few, and one of them is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But just like we all “know” the words to a pop song whose lyrics we’ve never actually looked up but that we’ve sung along to countless times, we might not always have the words right. In the case of songs the results can be hilarious. I remember hearing of one fellow who turned U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into the far more threatening “Someday buddy, someday.” And it worked for him.
I was reminded of this recently when thinking of Frost’s poem. I found myself reading it and was surprised to find I didn’t have some of the words right. Surprised because it’s really a very simple poem.
For starters, I’d remembered the third line — “He will not see me stopping here” — as “He will not mind me stopping here.” I guess that’s pretty bad, but the thing is, I kind of like my version better. Why would the person who owns these particular woods see the traveler? Presumably he and his horse are some ways out from the homestead, and it’s night out in the country, where there are no streetlamps. Also I think the point of the line is that the property owner wouldn’t be bothered by some minor trespass. What difference would it make even if he did see the man and his horse? Would he be upset? Why? Are they up to something they shouldn’t be?
Then, at the end of the second stanza, I’d always read “The darkest evening of the year” as “The coldest evening of the year.” And again I prefer my replacement word. What does the darkest evening of the year even mean? Any night with a new moon? But on a snowy winter night it’s always a bit lighter than at any other time of the year because the snow reflects whatever light there is. And there has to be some light because the man is watching the woods fill up with snow. Or does he mean it’s the darkest evening of the year because it’s the shortest day of the year? That may be, but it’s not what he says. Meanwhile, since it’s winter and the man doesn’t want to dawdle, having it be the coldest night of the year makes some sense.
Unlike a song whose lyrics I may have misheard, I don’t know where these revisions to Frost’s poem came from. I guess my brain replaced these words at some point many years ago, and because I liked them better they stuck. It makes you wonder how much of this goes on in any oral culture, and whether such indeterminacy is always a bad thing.