IN POEMS small things can count for a lot. Consider the difference a comma makes in these two lines:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
To my ear this makes two entirely different -- almost opposite -- meanings. In the first line the emphasis is evenly distributed. Lovely=dark=deep. It's a peaceful, undisturbing scene. In the second "dark and deep" is the kind of loveliness, and the second phrase is spoken rapidly, as if it were a darting glance at a darkness and deepness one doesn't want to linger over too long.
The second line is the one Robert Frost wrote in one of the best-known of all American poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The first line was written by a Dartmouth professor named Edward Lathem who edited Robert Frost's poems after his death and took it upon himself to correct Frost's punctuation. Latham's version appeared in The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt Rinehart Winston) in 1969 and has been the standard version available ever since. Poets have been complaining about this incredible rewriting of Frost's poems for 25 years. Now, at last, thanks to the Library of America, Frost's poems are available as he wrote them. Here is the rather scary poem Robert Frost actually wrote:
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.
It can be found in Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose (Library of America).
Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Co., Inc. from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem 1923, 1951 1969.
Robert Hass, the current U.S. poet laureate, introduces and discusses a poem a week in "Poet's Choice."