The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling

‘The Way Through the Woods’ by Rudyard Kipling is a two stanza poem made up of one stanza of twelve lines and another of thirteen. Kipling has chosen not to structure this piece with one particular rhyme scheme. Instead, there are instances of rhyme scattered throughout the lines.

This can be see though the repetition of the end word “woods.” It appears at the end of seven of the twenty-five lines. There are also moments such as that between lines two and four where the words “ago” and “know” rhyme. The same occurs between “trees” and “anemones” in lines six and eight.

When reading this piece it is easy to sense a conflict in the speaker. On one level he is mourning the loss of the path. With its disappearance one no longer has access to the beautiful moments and creatures that exist within the forest. On the other hand, the closure has caused a resurgence in the surrounding life. 

Trees have been replanted and animals have returned. They no longer remember or fear the “men” that used to travel the path. The speaker appreciates this fact, but the text still speaks to a yearning to see the woods first hand. 

 

Summary of The Way Through the Woods 

‘The Way Through the Woods’ by Rudyard Kipling describes the changes that have come over one particular plot of forest. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that there used to be a road in the woods here. It was seventy years ago that “they” got rid of it, Since that time there have been new trees planet and exponential growth from the plants that still lived there. The entire area has been reclaimed by nature. 

In the next lines the speaker discusses the “keeper” of the woods and what this person has access to that he does not. The keeper is able to see the secret interactions of animals and exist among them freely. Kipling’s speaker concludes the poem my describing all the things that one might see if they were to enter the woods at night.

 

Analysis of The Way Through the Woods 

Stanza One 

They shut the road through the woods

Seventy years ago.

Weather and rain have undone it again,

And now you would never know

There was once a road through the woods

Before they planted the trees.

It is underneath the coppice and heath

And the thin anemones.

Only the keeper sees

That, where the ring-dove broods,

And the badgers roll at ease,

There was once a road through the woods.

The poem begins with the speaker stating that one particular road was “shut…Seventy years ago.” This first line is spoken as if the reader already has prior knowledge of the road. Although seventy years have passed since anyone was able to traverse this path the speaker remembers it well. 

Since the time the road was closed the “Weather and rain” have ”undone it.” Due to the fact that it wasn’t maintained, the elements have almost erased it entirely. If one was to come upon this place now, unaware of the history, they would not know that there was “once a road through the woods.” Nature has taken back the area that humans had claimed. 

Trees have been planted and grown up around the path, helping to obscure what was left of the path. Now, if one was searching for it, they would have to go “underneath the coppice and heath.” Here, the speaker is referencing a wooded area that is annually cut back to stimulate growth and “heath,” or opposite. This is an area of uncultivated land. It can also refer to a type of common shrub that grows wild. One would also be forced to go around the “anemones.” This word is wide-ranging and refers to an expansive genus of flowers. 

There is a contrast here between the way that humans have worked the land, abandoned it, and then worked it again, and the way nature is trying to take it back. In the next lines the speaker refers to the “keeper.” This person is likely the one in charge of monitory the area. The speaker refers to the “keeper” vaguely. There is no real definition to what their job is but one can assume they have access to all the wildlife that has since come back to the area. 

The keeper is now the only one who is able to see beyond the surface level of the woods. This person sees the “ring-dove” brooding, or preparing to sit and incubate eggs. Their position allows them to see the “badgers roll[ing] at ease.” The animals are comfortable with this person. They feel as if they are able to continue on with their lives. There is an element of jealously between the speaker and this keeper. The keeper has access to a now secret world no one else can see. 

 

Stanza Two 

Yet, if you enter the woods

Of a summer evening late,

When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools

Where the otter whistles his mate,

(They fear not men in the woods,

Because they see so few.)

You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,

And the swish of a skirt in the dew,

Steadily cantering through

The misty solitudes,

As though they perfectly knew

The old lost road through the woods …

But there is no road through the woods.

In the next stanza the speaker discusses what happens if one “enter[s] the woods” on a “summer evening late.” One could slip into this area that is seemingly off-limits while no one is watching. The air would be cooling off for the day and the animals would be as relaxed as possible. One might even be able to hear the “otter whistle…[to] his mate.” 

The animals have no reason to fear “men” as there are so “few” passing through the area now. If the road still existed, this would not be the case. If one entered into the woods at this time there might even be a detectable sound of a “horse’s feet” beating on the ground. They move without hesitation and without need for a path. 

In the final lines the speaker increases the mystical and mysterious elements of this piece by describing how the horses seem to know “perfectly…The old lost road through the woods.” He concludes with the line, “But there is no road through the woods.” It has vanished so completely, he could not prove to another it ever existed. 

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  • Avatar Julia says:

    The skirt probably refers to the girl rider’s riding habit. In the time (70 years before Kipling wrote it, so mid 19th century?) before the road was shut, women would have ridden side saddle and riding dress often included long skirts that in some instances almost touched the ground even when mounted. So the girl riding her horse along the road through the woods,would probably had skirts that swished in the dew. To me, this part of the poem has a ghostly feel. You hear but do not see the girl rider and her horse which canters steadily and unimpeded along the old lost road as if it is still there, but the poem’s final line clarifies there is now no road. Perhaps a dreadful riding accident, maybe caused by her long skirts becoming entangled, was the cause of the road being closed. That’s what I have always felt might be the story behind this lovely poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a really interesting post. Thank you. And yes, I totally agree that that part of the poem is referring to riding side-saddle. I also agree it has an ethereal quality.

      • Avatar Julia says:

        Found out more info about this poem. It is in a childrens’ book called Reasons and Fairies in connection with a chapter called The Marklake Witches. This is set in Napoleonic times, early 19th century, in which a young girl who loves riding, is unknowingly dying of consumption. This seems to confirm the ghostly element of the poem. This would seem to indicate that most people talk a lot of nonsense about this poem, often ignoring the ghostly element altogether, which annoys me because it is one of my favourite poems.

        • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

          Wow, great information. That is so interesting. TB has a lot to answer for, it took the lives of such greats as George Orwell, but the flip side is that is has inspired some great literary works as well. I guess the relevance of such a destructive condition is as topical as it gets at the moment!

    • Avatar Alexia says:

      Kipling is clearly hinting here at a ghostly presence in the woods. The words “Misty solitude” make the reader feel that the phantoms are not a threat but a very real presence there.

  • Avatar Mohit says:

    Good summary – one question .. what does the skirt refer to? Whose skirt is it, or is that a mystical element..

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think it is just the sound of a horse rider travelling through the woods.

    • Avatar Yogyata Sharma says:

      The skirt refers to a girl whose skirt is wet in dew.

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        Maybe, but what girl? Just a random one? You could be right though.

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