FROST (ROBERT) Autograph manuscript signed ("R.F.") of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", contained in an autograph letter signed ("Robert Frost"), to Jack Haines ("Dear Jack"), [South Shaftesbury, Vermont], "Off for Ann Arbor Michigan USA", 28 January 1923
Lot 275
FROST (ROBERT)
Autograph manuscript signed ("R.F.") of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", contained in an autograph letter signed ("Robert Frost"), to Jack Haines ("Dear Jack"), [South Shaftesbury, Vermont], "Off for Ann Arbor Michigan USA", 28 January 1923: THE NEWLY DISCOVERED FINAL DRAFT AND EARLIEST KNOWN MANUSCRIPT OF THE COMPLETE VERSION OF ʻSTOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING', WIDELY REGARDED AS ROBERT FROST'S GREATEST POEM.
Sold for £ 52,500 (US$ 69,140) inc. premium

Lot Details
ROBERT FROST, EDWARD THOMAS AND THE DYMOCK POETS
FROST (ROBERT)
Autograph manuscript signed ("R.F.") of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", contained in an autograph letter signed ("Robert Frost"), to Jack Haines ("Dear Jack"), the letter discussing the possibility of Frost's exchanging his post at Ann Arbor with Lascelles Abercrombie ("...My whole duty is to dress for an occasional dinner and for the rest be accessible. The papers have ʻfeatured' it as the ʻsoftest job in the world'...") and telling Haines that he will send a copy of Mountain Interval for him to forward to John Freeman; Frost then announces that "I shall be sending you some poetry in MS again before long", adding by way of afterthought "I believe I'll copy a bit here and now" –

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

succeeded by a final postscript: "In our next possibly The Star Splitter"; autograph envelope, stamped and postmarked, 3 pages, minor dust-staining, envelope slightly dust-stained, 8vo, [South Shaftesbury, Vermont], "Off for Ann Arbor Michigan USA", 28 January 1923

Footnotes

  • THE NEWLY DISCOVERED FINAL DRAFT AND EARLIEST KNOWN MANUSCRIPT OF THE COMPLETE VERSION OF ʻSTOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING', WIDELY REGARDED AS ROBERT FROST'S GREATEST POEM, and indeed sometimes described as the most famous poem of the twentieth century.

    Our manuscript was written on 28 January 1923, and so predates the poem's first publication in The New Republic on 7 March that year. For some reason it is not among the letters that Haines copied for Frost's biographer Lawrance Thompson and so has remained unknown and unpublished until now. The only other manuscript of the poem that we have been able to trace that predates publication with any certainty is the very first draft. This is written on a single leaf torn from a notebook and consists of only three stanzas. It is held by the Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, and is reproduced and discussed in Letters, ii, pp.330-31, and elsewhere.

    The Jones draft opens at what is now the second stanza ("The little horse must think it queer....") and is headed by an abandoned line "The steaming horses think it queer", that suggests a different trajectory to the one taken. At some later point the present first stanza was added. This makes its first known appearance in our manuscript; although no doubt some draft at some time or other once existed ("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."). Our manuscript contains two tweaks that bring the poem to its final form; namely Frost deletes "see" in line 4 and replaces it by "watch", and "My" replaces "The" in the next line (the first printing retains "The", but all subsequent printings follow the text as arrived at in our manuscript, punctuation apart).

    The Jones draft is thought to date from mid July 1922, and Frost has left several accounts of how it came to be written: ʻI wrote the whole of New Hampshire between ten o'clock one night and ten the next morning and then in a daze topped it off with Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' (Letters, p.408). The circumstances that furnish the poem's mise-en-scène took place some time before. These Frost described to N. Arthur Bleau who had asked him after a poetry reading at Bowdoin College in 1947 which was his favourite poem: ʻAt first Frost ignored the question, saying they were all his favorites and ended the session. Then he invited Bleau to the podium and spoke with him privately. "Stopping by Woods" was his favourite poem because it arose from a particularly bleak Christmas and the "darkest evening of the year" just before it. Having no money, Frost loaded the wagon with farm produce and went to town, but he found no buyers and returned empty-handed, without even small gifts for the children. He felt he had failed his family, and rounding a bend in the road, by woods, and quite near his house, the horse, who seemed to understand his mood, and who had already been given the reins, slowed and stopped, letting Frost have a good cry. "I just sat there and bawled like a baby," Bleau reports Frost as having said. In a following note, Frost's daughter, Lesley, confirms the story, saying her father gave her the same explanation... She adds another few words of her father's that she remembers: "A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time." She even remembers the name of the horse, Eunice" (David Hamilton, ʻThe Echoes of Frost's Woods', in Road Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, edited by Earl J. Wilcox and Jonathan N. Barron, 2000, p.127).

    This incident, one assumes, occurred during Frost's years of poverty before he sailed for England in 1912, where he found a measure of fame and, if not a fortune, at least a sufficiency. The original three-stanza version of the poem confines itself to this incident. It is a nice coincidence, if nothing more, that the first known manuscript of the poem complete with its first stanza – containing as it does something akin to a hint of trespass – should have been sent to someone who had been privy to the real-life episode in which Frost and his friend Edward Thomas had been threatened by a shot-gun wielding gamekeeper for trespassing in woods on behalf of their absent owner.

    Following its The New Republic publication, the poem was collected in New Hampshire (along with his tribute ʻTo E.T.'), published on 15 November 1923. Frost is known to have copied out the poem for admirers in later life. One such copy is in the Library of Congress, another at the Beinecke Library; while another was inscribed in a first edition of New Hampshire, sold in our New York rooms on 17 October 2006, lot 3320 ($30,000 hammer). Possibly the poem's most famous admirer was John F. Kennedy, who like the rest of us was haunted by the last four lines and that repetition.

    Similarly, all references to the poem in Frost's published correspondence postdate its publication in The New Republic. The earliest dates from sometime soon after publication and is to Ridgely Torrence, the magazine's poetry editor, thanking him for the care with which he set out the poem which ʻmade a lot of people think they liked it' (Letters, p.32). Although Frost clearly knew from the outset that it was a good poem, his opinion of it seems to have grown in the months after publication. He writes to a friend on 30 April 1923 ʻThe more I think of it the surer I am of that there poem' (p.335), and in early May that year he makes his well-known pronouncement to Louis Untermeyer that it ʻis my best bid for remembrance' (p.339).
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