December 31, 2010


Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening closes with the lines:

      “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.”

Almost everyone in America knows these lines and I suspect a good deal of the English reading world does also. In the poem an anonymous person pauses to look at woods on a winter evening, a beautiful scene that provides time for reflection before being recalled to one’s obligations. The situation is so simple and so ordinary that not until we reach the refrain of the last lines do we begin to contemplate the poem’s deeper meaning. Sleep in the second line is possibly not sleep but a metaphor for death, as is the snow that seems so still and quiet. When the sleigh’s horse shakes its bells, the reverie is broken. Bemused, the driver snaps his reins and moves on.  

While Frost’s poem isn’t associated with the New Year holiday, I often remember it in this season, the time when thoughts of renewal and rebirth inspire resolutions. At my time of life, it might be too optimistic to set goals for a whole year. It’s best to take each day at a time. I’d like to work for happier world, of course, for an end to crippling diseases and for an end to wars. But these are promises beyond my power to keep, so I make smaller ones, greeting each morning with the same set of resolutions I made the day before: I promise to cherish my friends, to treat people honestly, to serve my community and to be generous to others. The task of keeping these vows isn’t easy. Some days, I don’t do as well as I should and that’s why with each new dawn, I repeat them over again. By the end of the year, if I’ve come anywhere near my daily objectives, I will have helped make my corner of the world a better place.

Frost was 48 when he wrote his poem, his life barely half over. I am 74.  But as long as I have dreams and hopes, then I, too, have promises to keep.