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What is the correct punctuation of the last stanza of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening?
December 17, 2012 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I need the correct version (punctuation) of Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, please.

The internet turns up variations, but I am looking for Frost's exact version of the last stanza. I have no volume to consult, so I am turning here. This is very important as it's for a tatoo, so I need to get it right. Can I trust this version here?
posted by kitcat to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
This is very important as it's for a tatoo, so I need to get it right.

Can it wait for a day or two so you can double check at a library?

The copy of Frost's collected poems available to me right now punctuates like so:

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.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:46 PM on December 17, 2012


Page 225 of this unabridged collection punctuates it the same as the above.
posted by griphus at 12:51 PM on December 17, 2012


From the Library of Congress, the poem in Frost's own handwriting. The punctuation is rather different from the printed versions, but you could try to get the tattoo of his actual writing, which could be neat.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:52 PM on December 17, 2012 [17 favorites]


I think Frost's original punctuation may be incorrect. Should be:

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.

posted by KokuRyu at 12:53 PM on December 17, 2012


Frost's original punctuation may be incorrect

Incorrect in what sense? I don't think the asker wants the most grammatically correct version, but the most accurate to what Frost actually wrote. Did you edit the punctuation to the version you posted yourself?
posted by ocherdraco at 12:56 PM on December 17, 2012


This is actually a problem you run into with poetry, in that there's a version that the Establishment has decided to be canonical, but it isn't necessarily the first published version, or the original-as-written. The further back you go the worse it gets, because of how poetry was distributed. Feel lucky you didn't get inspired to get a John Donne poem tattooed on you.
posted by griphus at 12:56 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, yeah, in this context, KokuRyu, "correct" means "as published," not "grammatically correct." Even if it is wrong, grammatically, it is the work of the author, just like a few errant brushstrokes in a painting comprise the painting, rather than an error.
posted by griphus at 12:58 PM on December 17, 2012


I think KokuRyu is pulling our leg, as his repunctuated copy is neither grammatically nor Frostily "correct."
posted by Orinda at 1:09 PM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Frost was meticulous about correcting his proofs, so whatever the punctuation in New Hampshire is is what he wanted.

There is no Oxford comma before "and deep" if that is your question.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:17 PM on December 17, 2012


Yikes. I'm a former lit major. I can't decide which is more important to me - the author's original (and it goes against my nature to consider that 'incorrect'), or the canonical version.

I was really hoping this wouldn't be debatable. I don't see the point in checking a library version; versions may differ there as well and so I would still be left with the original problem. Maybe I should choose the grammar I like best?
posted by kitcat at 1:18 PM on December 17, 2012


This is a challenging question.

One issue: the serial comma in the first line. In no edition published in his lifetime did Frost include a comma before the 'and'. It was always "The woods are lovely, dark and deep", as in the handwritten version linked by ocherdraco. The serial comma was added by Edward Connery Lathem in his collection of Frost's verse published in 1969.

See a discussion of this issue here.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:19 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I sound like a moron above. What I mean is, if the author circulated multiple versions, how else can I choose? But it's not clear to me - did he circulate multiple versions?
posted by kitcat at 1:20 PM on December 17, 2012


If you want an edition that was edited with the goal of recapturing Frost's original intent, take a look at the Library of America version edited by Poirier and Richardson (though note that not everyone agrees that they got it right). This edition has:

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.

posted by mr_roboto at 1:24 PM on December 17, 2012


Maybe I should choose the grammar I like best?

I'd go with the grammar in the edition in which you're most familiar with it.

But it's not clear to me - did he circulate multiple versions?

I can't tell you about Frost, but, generally, every time the poem is anthologized somewhere, changes can slip in whether by the poet making some subtle revisions and submitting them, or a zealous editor like in mr_robot's link up there.
posted by griphus at 1:26 PM on December 17, 2012


Now I am beginning to panic. In his own handwritten version, is that a comma at the end of the first line or a period? Was that his final version?

Sidhedevil, or someone, could you please post the New Hampshire version? I'm not comfortable with other authors' efforts to capture someone's 'original intent' if said editors are working in the author's native language. If his proofing was truly that careful, I would be happiest going with that version.
posted by kitcat at 1:29 PM on December 17, 2012


The Library of America version is based on New Hampshire. However, my bias here is that I took Poirier's Frost seminar (with Richardson, who was a good friend of mine in our grad school days). Lathem put that second comma in for absolutely no attested reason; as I said, Frost was a meticulous corrector of proofs, and if he'd wanted a comma there he would have put one in when he was alive.

The one-comma version is the new canon.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:33 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd go with the grammar in the edition in which you're most familiar with it.

Frost is not a poet close to my heart and so I have no tattered and beloved copy of any editions. This is a 'quit smoking' tatoo and the lines serve my purpose for that intent. Nevertheless, I know his poetry is extraordinary careful in composition and I would like to the closest to the 'original' as possible. Ok, I'll stop thread-sitting.
posted by kitcat at 1:34 PM on December 17, 2012


That's a period at the end of Frost's first line in his hand. Perhaps the ambiguity is telling you something about this the suitability of this verse as a tattoo for you. Don't rush into anything!
posted by Scram at 1:35 PM on December 17, 2012


Then I second Sidhedevil's "if he'd wanted a comma there he would have put one in when he was alive."
posted by griphus at 1:35 PM on December 17, 2012


I think Donald Hall's comments on the subject are also on point.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:35 PM on December 17, 2012


Also, if you want a quick lesson in the concept of canon w/r/t poetry, it is a (relatively) novel thing. It's only these last couple of centuries that poems have been assumed to have a cast-in-stone form to them. I mentioned Donne above and, back in his day, poems would be circulated on pamphlets (usually printed) or hand-transcribed (usually among a few cliques in the court) and edited as much as the person making the copy wanted. In a social context, this wasn't considered a deep heresy against the author's intent, but just how these things worked. For instance, The 1896 collection of the works of John Donne, which I believe is the canonical one, is "based on the 1633, 1635, 1650 and 1669 editions of Donne's Poems."

So, with Frost, who is contemporary, it is obviously a different case, but this sort of ambiguity is endemic to the form.
posted by griphus at 1:44 PM on December 17, 2012


It's not just a question of the comma. I'm with Sidhedevil and referenced scholars on that. Dash or comma at the end of the third line? Comma or period at the end of the first?
posted by kitcat at 1:54 PM on December 17, 2012


I think that if you don't view the author's handwritten copy as authoritative, any decisions you make as to what else you consider to be the final word are really going to be arbitrary. Get the original if you like it. Get the version most widely published during Frost's life if you don't.
posted by Jairus at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you're looking for the One True Version of the poem, you're out of luck as there is no such thing. Even the original handwritten copy might not be as Frost intended it for publication. We'll never know.

Why don't you just pick the one you like best?
posted by jesourie at 2:03 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the importance of the handwritten copy is that it is an extant artifact of Frost's life and work, not that it is the authoritative form of the poem. So I would honestly disregard that unless you're doing the handwritten-tattoo idea, in which case that will obviously be the copy to use.

Otherwise, I'd go with the New Hampshire one as suggested above, as you can be sure that Frost said "yes, this is how I want my poem to look." If the University of Toronto library is to be trusted, here is a direct transcription as how it appeared in the 1923 edition New Hampshire:
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.
posted by griphus at 2:20 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you. This was an unexpectedly interesting thread. I will be 'reading' this poem for the rest of my life and the grammar certainly shapes the reading. This is ultimately why it it so important to me. Knowing that Frost approved this version for publication (despite how it differs from the handwritten artifact) makes it my choice.
posted by kitcat at 2:33 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only copy I can find in my library is in MODERN AMERICAN POETRY: A Critical Anthology, Edited by Louis Untermeyer, ©1919, 1921, 1925

It agrees with mr_roboto's version, not griphus's (note comma at the end of the first line):

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.
posted by fritley at 3:11 PM on December 17, 2012


Listen to Frost reciting the poem; perhaps that will help.
posted by theora55 at 8:39 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


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