The other Robert Frost: "The Road Not Taken"
What's happening in this photo? Actually, it's a photo of me, walking in the woods on a chilly day in early spring--that's why I'm wearing a fairly bulky jacket.
The place? The grounds of the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, NH, on a visit there about two years ago.
What am I doing? Well, I'm caught in the act of unconsciously illustrating his famous poem "The Road Not Taken."
When I came upon these two paths diverging in the Frost woods (not "a yellow wood," but hey, that's poetic license) I don't recall which one I took. But I'm pretty certain it didn't make a particle of difference.
You probably all know the poem. Maybe you studied it in college, as I did. Maybe you first encountered it even earlier, as I had (in junior high; my brother read it to me), and loved it even at that young age. Maybe you think you know what it's about, as I did then.
Robert Frost is one of the most popular American poets, one of the few whose poems are known to more than just a handful of poetry aficionados. He carefully cultivated his public image as the crusty old New Englander, he of the simple declarative words and the keen nature observations. He even looked like the grandfatherly type:
Those of you who read this blog regularly may know that I'm a fan of Robert Frost. A big fan, actually. I consider him a poet of surface simplicity and great underlying complexity, a complexity I neither saw nor understood when young. But perhaps I felt it and sensed it.
I think Frost can be appreciated on both levels, actually. But it's the second I'm interested in writing about today.
Here's the poem, "The Road Not Taken," to refresh your memory:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Like much of Frost, it seems to say one thing--it even does say that one thing--and yet on further study it also is saying something else, something more difficult to discern. It's that second "something," combined with the first, that give the poem its great resonance and power.
On the surface, of course, it's a lovely poetic expression of an obvious and perhaps even cliched thought: we come to a crossroads in life, make a decision , and that decision affects our entire future.
Or does it?
The poem is also about the speaker, an older person looking back and telling a tale--"constructing a reality" as it were--in reminiscence. The poem contains a set of lines that the casual reader can ignore or think unimportant, but good poets such as Frost rarely waste words.
Why does he initially describe the road he takes as less-traveled ("it was grassy and wanted wear") and then immediately contradict himself ("Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same")? Earlier, too, he has said the other road was "just as fair"--another sign of equality. And then, just to make sure we haven't missed it, he adds "And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black." Different, or equal? What gives here?
Well, as Frost himself said, "It's a trick poem--very tricky." But it's more than tricky, and more than a joke or a puzzle, because it contains both thoughts at once, and the juxtaposition makes it even more profound. How can we ever know the result of the decisions we make? We can't, because the road not taken--the one we don't choose--has consequences we can't see. We can only guess at any of this, and then later sit back and reflect and tell tales that sound like an explanation. And perhaps the explanation is even true--who knows?
I'm reminded--as I so often am--of one of my very favorite authors, Milan Kundera. He begins The Unbearable Lightness of Being with a reflection on Nietzsche's strange notion of eternal return--that in some dimension, our lives repeat again and again:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that this recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum? What does this mad myth signify?...
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
Kundera describes his vacillating hero, Tomas, in the throes of making a decision about whether or not he is in love with a certain woman:
He remained annoyed with himself [for not knowing what he should do] until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural.
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come...There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live our lives without warning, like an actor going on cold.
We come to that proverbial fork in the road and a decision must be made. We make it, sometimes after a great deal of vacillation. And then we tell ourselves--with either satisfaction, regret, or ambivalence--that our decision, the road we took, "has made all the difference."
And perhaps, indeed, it has. The poet doesn't have the answer. But he's awfully good at stating the question, and presenting the paradox in words and images that speak to the heart as well as the mind.