It’s fairly well-known that Frost was very skilled at his craft, particularly in the world of imagery. Some of his most famous works of poetry, such as Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening or The Road Not Taken, including ‘Good Hours,’ do much to express his ability to form entire worlds through words alone, to express and evoke powerful feelings and vivid sentiments through brief snapshots of a moment that can mean everything.
‘Good Hours’ is another powerful example of Frost’s strong abilities in this field. Describing a winter evening walk, Frost takes us through but a brief time in the life of his narrator, but it is a poem filled with emotion and beauty nevertheless. What follows is my personal interpretation of the work.
Analysis of Good Hours
I had for my winter evening walk
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.
When the narrator begins his story, setting the tone and pace for the story, as well as the AABB rhyming structure that persists throughout, he is walking alone in the evening, a daily ritual in the winter for them. They make note of the fact that they are alone, but this doesn’t read as a terribly sad fact, rather something that they enjoy doing in solitude. The peaceful silence of a winter evening can be a very nice thing to appreciate by oneself, and it seems that is what the narrator is doing here — according to the last two lines, they are comforted by a long line of cottages, and a great deal of snow on the ground, which paints a rather cozy picture… of which the narrator is not a part.
And I thought I had the folk within:
I had the sound of a violin;
I had a glimpse through curtain laces
Of youthful forms and youthful faces.
The wording is somewhat strange here, but it seems likely it was worded this way on purpose to allow for a continuation of the pacing of ‘Good Hours’ (and it also allows each line of the stanza to be nine syllables long). When the narrator says they “had” the folk within, it seems likely that they spotted them through the window, and that he heard them playing a violin, which makes sense, considering that a sound is not something that can be had. And when this narrator, drawn undoubtedly to the sudden sight, looks through the window, he sees through the curtain a group of young people, likely dancing to or simply appreciating the music from the violin.
I had such company outward bound.
I went till there were no cottages found.
I turned and repented, but coming back
I saw no window but that was black.
Eventually, the narrator reaches the end of their route, where the rows of cottages end, taking small comfort in the various faces and groups he sees behind each curtain. As he turns to go back, he realizes that all of the windows are dark every candle extinguished… this is an evening walk, after all, but it seems to be later than we think it is, for everyone has gone to bed.
Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave,
At ten o’clock of a winter eve.
In the silence and the darkness, the sounds of the narrator’s steps almost sound profane. The sense of isolation returns to the poem, but this time it is a more somber realization, as though the narrator in fact should not be there to create those noises, alone and isolated from the rest of the village, which he continues to walk on past.
The strongest theme present in this poem is that of isolation; we are given the picture of a narrator who is entirely removed from the stories of others. They are alone, while everyone else they see is warm in a cottage, enjoying music and company. The parallels are many; the narrator is outside in the dark, they are in the light; the sounds from inside are the musical notes of a violin; outside, the narrator’s steps are all but profane. There is a true sense of isolation present in this poem, one that persists throughout the entire read, although it starts off very subtly before making itself truly apparent in the final stanza.
The title of the poem is interesting — “to keep good hours” typically refers to going to bed early, which the narrator of the poem evidently isn’t doing. The title seems to strengthen the parallel between the narrator and everyone else; that others are keeping good hours, while the narrator engages on an evening walk alone.
‘Good Hours’ was written and published in 1915, for the second printing of North of Boston, a poetry collection by Frost that included Mending Wall and After Apple-Picking. The writing of the poem coincides with a time when, after the beginning of World War I, Robert Frost had returned to live in the United States, after having previously traveled to Great Britain a few years prior with his family. It might make sense to think of Frost being inspired by a sense of separation that would understandably have arisen from moving back to America, as travel has been known to cause. Frost’s personal life was also one that involved a great deal of tragedy, and loneliness would be an understandable aspect of his personality, even at this point in his life.
There is much that might have inspired him to write this poem, and not a lot has been said about it historically. North of Boston was published early into Frost’s career as a poet, and while it contains a few of his very popular poems, many of the others have been forgotten.
Ironically, ‘Good Hours’ seems to fall best into the latter category, the one that isolates it from the better-received of Robert Frost’s impressive catalog, the poems that get read aloud late into the night in social gatherings, perhaps to the upbeat singing of a sweet violin before ten-o’-clock.