Monday, January 02, 2006

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.


At 3:09 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frost's poem reminds me once again why I get so annoyed with those who demand that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for mistakes made in Iraq. How can he or we know if more troops would have made a difference, or perhaps fewer troops. How can we know if different plans would be better or worse.

I keep imagining Bush critics, when facing a major decision, running first down one road one hundred yards and then running back to go three hundred yards down the other. Finally, exhausted, they collapse at the Y with nothing accomplished.

At 4:35 PM, January 02, 2006, Blogger RickInNY said...

A Frost fan's life is incomplete until she has trekked to the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail in East Middlebury, Vermont near the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College. Frost walked the area many times and "The Road Not Taken" is highlighted. Frost too, is my favorite American poet, for the clean simplicity of his works. I often think of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" when I reflect upon them. As you walk the trail you can sense the inspiration, and the senses are heightened. Some time ago a friend came across The Circle not knowing that I thought it described our relationship perfectly. In revealing this to me, the coincidence was surreal...but then again perhaps it was just a given, inevitable, only waiting for the nature of things to run their course.

At the risk of revealing personal identities, I write these words from Frost's apartment in Boston, long ago in the Harvard days.

At 5:51 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous strcpy said...

One of the classes I had in college that studied this poem was obsessed with reading many things the authors had written about them. This particular poem always stood out in my mind for several reasons.

One is that you almost always read it and write something on it every poetry class you take. Usually there are accepted and unaccepted answers in what the metaphores are about.

Second is that, according to what we read that was supposed to be part of his diaries, Frost's original intention was to make fun of a friend who always thought that he screwed himself by taking the wrong path, usually complaining that only he took that path when in fact the path's were pretty much equal. It's amusing that simply changing the tone of your voice will change this poem from inspirational (go your own way) to a really bitter "life hates me" (read the last line as bitter person who hates life). Though he also understood the inspirational meaning and liked that it was ambiguous.

Thirdly, the number of times I recieved a bad grade for writing the above (sometimes even a paraphrase of Frost's own words) because, of course, we all know it is a truly inspirational poem. Most profs wouldn't even relent after citing his diaries that it could mean that.

It was has been one of the two great events in my life that made me detest modern English as a major. The other was using a computer to randomly generate about 50 or so stream of conciousness poems and getting a "100 - deep insight into humans" on the semester long project. Including the teacher wanting to submit it for publication to several places (if it had been later, after I hated English, I would have done it). While rand() does many things, deep insight into the human mind isn't one of them.

At 5:56 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Megan said...

It might be surprising, or with the state of today's educational system perhaps not, that I never once was introduced to Robert Frost's poem. Being an honors student starting in the 7th grade through the 11th (I felt the 12th grade honors program was very lacking) meant that we got to do "more enlightened" work... not constrained to the "pedestrian" work in the 'normal' classes.

How quaint.

I really like this poem, and I am not a huge poetry fan. I agree that we can't ever know what the consequences are of making a different decision. Would I ever have met my husband if I hadn't dropped out of the major University and come home to attend the local Community College? Would I have my current job if I hadn't behaved poorly and gotten fired from another, less enjoyable one? Who knows?

If I had it to do over again? Perhaps...but I think I turned out okay...even with a so called "superior" education. *snort* whatever!

At 6:05 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous xbalanke said...

I've also been a big fan of Frost since grade school - long before I decided I even liked poetry. The more I read, the more impressed I am with his work.

Last year my daughter had a fourth grade school assignment to write about a poem she liked. After reading several poems (both children's and other types) without any great reaction, she read "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and was immediately enthralled. She LOVED it and used it to write a wonderful presentation.

I love that quality about Frost's work: the accessibility that children can appreciate without sacrificing the depth that rewards multiple readings.

At 6:21 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Judith said...

I'll never forget Ciardi's discussion of "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening". It's so deceptively simple, but actually a challenging tour de force. It might be the only poem that I learned by heart without ever trying to do so.

At 7:44 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Gerard said...

Frost is usually a pretty accurate poet when it comes to the physical world.

Might I suggest that the wood, especially in Maine, can very well be yellow in a different season of the year.

["...niggle, niggle, niggle..."]

At 7:56 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Gerard said...

"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."

I think the tricky Frost would agree with that but note that it was only half the story. There are, after all, two subjects in the poem. The poet, the walker, the one who "makes" the decision and the silent sharer, the road itself, which also has a say in the decision made.

And, as way leads on to way, a say in the consequences as well. In Frost is not always the will of the protagonist alone but the will of the natural world in conflict with or in concert with the protagonist. Frost's nature is a very animated anime. Mute matter is as articulate... in its way as is matter mental.

At 8:30 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

I happened to be listening to an awards ceremony where the speaker used this poem as his text.

I had an epiphany, which may be as obvious to everybody else as night and day.

But it was new to me.

A reason to take the road less traveled is to take a chance, purposely.

Now, to push the road metaphor, perhaps the road less traveled is less traveled because it's a lousy road that ends up noplace. The locals know it. Out-of-towners try it, and part of the traffic traces is the out-of-towners coming back.

But. Perhaps it's been closed by a landslide and you happen to be a geologist and looking at the landslide would be a terrific deal for you.
Or you're in the bridge business and you see the road goes nowhere because the bridge is broken. Now you have an opportunity to give the township a quote.

None of this happens if you don't try the road less taken.

So, the lesson I finally got is to take the road less traveled so that you don't, in your old age, bitterly regret what you might have had. At least, you'll know it wasn't there, so there's nothing to regret, except that whatever it was wasn't anyplace else, either, but you didn't fail from lack of zeal.

At 11:08 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous kung fu said...

Sorry, but I studied Frost in college as well, and he just put me to sleep. Give me William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Allan Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti...

At 11:30 PM, January 02, 2006, Blogger Meade said...

I've always enjoyed the phrases bent in the undergrowth and diverged in a wood

At 11:40 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Frost didn't put me to sleep. But Kipling is The Master.

At 11:53 PM, January 02, 2006, Blogger Holmes said...

We covered Frost in an honors class in college. The only thing I remember was Frost's great uncertainty and fear. He didn't revere nature, according to what we learned anyway, as much as fear it and the chaos that it represented. I didn't like poetry going into the class. I hated it going out. Perhaps going too deeply into these things ruins the beauty.

At 1:27 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

Frost read his poem at Kennedy's inaugural, if memory serves. Shows how times have changed. Clinton had Maya Anglou, and she read a poem about dinosaur turds. Ah, culture.

Richard Aubrey put his finger on it with Kipling.

Oh, East is East, and West is West,
and never the two shall meet,
Till earth and Sky stand presently at
God's great Judgement Seat;
But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to
face, tho' they come from the ends
of the earth.

At 8:31 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger cokaygne said...

According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, fourth edition, the poem read at JFK's inauguration was "The Gift Outright."

Anyway, the beauty of Frost is the way he seamlessly combines many levels of analysis in his work. It is fine to read him as a New England (born in California) pastorialist. But one re-reads him and finds more there. In one of his poems, "Neither out Far nor in Deep." he describes people sitting on a beach looking out at the sea, and wonders why they stare at the unchangeing ocean and turn their backs on the more complex landscape of the earth. He concludes,

"They cannot look out far
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?"

At 11:52 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Promethea said...

Back to the world of January 3, 2006--and to the first poster's (anonymous's) comment--

Dr. Sanity linked today to an article by Thomas Sowell on the two roads we can take re lunatic nuclear Iran.

Kindly old gent Frost's poem can be interpreted chillingly in the light of the future we all face because of the decisions and actions that we take today.

At 12:01 PM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Pancho said...

I too, love that poem. I liked your philosophical thoughts also and the deep mysterious questions that are posed therein. But it made my brain hurt... :>]

At 1:56 PM, January 03, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

Well, I seek forgiveness for my memory. I was but three.

I always liked "Mending Wall:"
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

It's instructive that Frost is remembered for the old saw about fences and neighbors, and he argued the other side. Sorta. I think.

At 8:33 PM, January 04, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

My grandfather had Frost as an English teacher at Pinkerton Academy around 1912. His memory was that he wasn't very good, being resentful of having to come rescue his family and support them by teaching school after his father had died. He didn't seem to like his students much. Of course, that is a highschool boy's memory decades later.

Stopping By Woods is done by Susan Jeffries as a children's picture book, and is simply wonderful.

At 4:21 AM, January 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I think Frost intentionally left out something at the end.And that has made all the difference, so far as we know.

Perhaps it would have been too obvious that way. The traveler even if he came back and took the road less traveled, will not have the same journey. Once an action has been taken, it not only is irreversible in the sense that it makes all the difference but it also closes off all other avenues and focuses the mind's eye of causality onto one path. The path chosen. All others become false, illusions, things that no longer matter and are no longer known.

I remember reading Frost at 11th or 12th grade. For cert I had it in 12th grade Ap English. Lacking a lot of wisdom and life experiences, most of my memories are simply on the poetic words. The meaning, requires some experience. Since the it is far better to see it through a prism and a matrix, then through a hole.

If I had it to do over again? Perhaps...but I think I turned out okay...even with a so called "superior" education. *snort* whatever!

The best education is self-education. And the internet is history's most powerful tool in that regard. First it was Greek logic, then it was Gutenberg's Printing Press, and so on.

My favorite poems are Frost's short Ice and Fire poems. Strong images, a powerful human tendency to destroy, and short. Then there was Kublai Khan, which was quite excellent. Vivid, heart rending beauty in essence and form.

The Tommy poem by Kipling and IF Recessional were also good. The Tommy poem has a lot of applications to today and the WOunded Soldiers project.

When I read a good poem, I don't notice the rhyming or ionic pentameter or any other technicalities. ALl I know is whether it sounds good or not. All of those technicalities are filtered through my subconscious, where they belong, so that my higher thought centers can concentrate on the Meaning, the Beauty, and the Sublime qualities of the poem. Leave technical stuff to the automatic portions of the brain, and the human stuff to the human.

I always thought "Good walls make good neighbors" meant in the greater scheme of things, that building walls was some social function that would show one's respect or something. Which was quite weird, because now I understand that walls are deterences against the savage human beast. Which must be tamed or else it will unleash cruel destruction upon those that we must protect. Quite a contrast.

At 1:35 AM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Lee said...

Is Robert Frost’s poem “Road Not Taken” simply about regrets, as many readers often claim, or is it really about a clear break from conformity? On the surface, it certainly "seems" to describe an impasse, not only while traveling down a wooded path, but also while making one’s way through life. Social patterns teach us (who are not Buddhists) a simplistic dichotomy that "everyman" must make life-altering decisions and sometimes even choose which path he will take, and sometimes there’s no going back. It is therefore common – and perhaps even natural – for . . . [please go HERE to read the rest of this comment]

At 3:10 PM, May 07, 2006, Anonymous Helen said...

"The Road Not Taken" is my favourite poem by Robert Frost
I love also "Fire and Ice"

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


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