"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another Walk Down "The Road Not Taken"

I shall be telling this … not with a sigh necessarily but with a tad of hesitation. Here goes: One of the most widely known American poems is widely misunderstood.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, 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

Ah, yes, there it is. The first poem in Robert Frost’s third published collection, Mountain Interval (1920). (Hear an actual reading of it by the poet here.) At some point you’ve likely encountered the poem—or at least you have a vague impression of it left from the phenomenon we call English class. The road forks and a direction must be taken. What we have is an archetypal image of choice. And—here’s the clincher—the one “less traveled” is what’s chosen, which “has made all the difference.” Those details, to my estimation, constitute the commonly “recalled” version. In fact, people often misremember the title of the poem as “The Road Less Traveled” rather than its actual title—“The Road Not Taken."

Based on that gloss, the thrust of the poem is this: It’s an assertion of the individual spirit, of course. An inspirational credo of non-conformity in the face of conventionality. Right? No. In fact, a close reading—and I say a close reading, not an excruciatingly arcane analysis—reveals that this is not the case.

Now here’s arcane. Frost scholar Robert Faggen interprets “The Road” as an exploration of Darwinian forces acting upon the individual:
Frost is presenting an antimyth in which origin, destination, and return are undermined by a nonprogressive development. And the hero has only illusory choice. This psychological representation of the developmental principle of divergence strikes to the core of Darwinian theory. Species are made and survive when individuals diverge from others in a branching scheme, as the roads diverge for the speaker. The process of selection implies an unretracing process of change through which individual kinds are permanently altered by experience. Though the problem of making a choice at a crossroads is almost a commonplace, the drama of the poem conveys a larger mythology by including evolutionary metaphors and suggesting the passage of eons.
We could consider Faggen’s understanding for the purposes here. But why would we want to do that? Yes, Darwinian ideas were unquestionably a part of Frost’s intellectual world. And yet Faggen’s insights—which I don't buy anyway—are of little to no help here in making my point, which is really this: The four stanzas of this beloved American poem comprise a wry, nuanced nexus of attitudes and emotions. More explicitly put via negativa: This is not a poem to be "summed up" in the final two lines.

And regarding “The Road Not Taken,” Frost himself said, “You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem—very tricky." Now what on earth could he have meant by that?

To be clear, for the purposes of simply approaching a better understanding of a poem that is all too simplistically—and inaccurately—understood, we really need no comments from the poet nor even the identification of the possible “source,” as it were, for the poem.

And why not? Beause the words themselves—the key ingredients, please remember, of a poem—suffice. Let us adapt the wise admonition of D.H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale." So we will trust the poem and find that it is more than enough to turn the typical understanding of the “The Road” on its head.

But first (sigh), I suppose we can peer down a road perhaps too often taken to understand a piece of literature—the life of the author. Frost made clear in a letter that he had his close friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas in mind when he wrote the poem. The apparent seed of the poem was a good-natured attempt for Frost to rib his friend, with whom he had regularly gone on walks, about his pattern of vacillating over which path to take and then regretting the choice later.

Though that may be true, we still have better options to explore. Fleshing out—i.e., carefully reading—two areas in particular of the poem itself illuminates the apparently too often ignored. (And will prove more beneficial than any biographical tidbit.) Consider these factors: 1) What the poet writes of the paths themselves and 2) the tense—and attitude—change in the final stanza.

Though I abandoned Faggen above, don’t think I’ve thrown out the scholar with the—er—scholar water. (You get what I mean.) Undermining the supposed inspirational theme of “The Road” feels more daunting than it does difficult, which is why I will bring in some scholarly insight to embolden me.

William Pritchard provides as good a summary as any on what I’ll call the reasonable reading not taken:
[T]he large moral meaning which "The Road Not Taken" seems to endorse—go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make "all the difference"—does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance "really about the same," that they "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had "perhaps the better claim." But in the final stanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told "with a sigh" and "ages and ages hence." At that imagined time and unspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsive matter into a deliberate one of taking the "less traveled" road:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The roads, as the poet chooses to express more than once, are not so different. And then there's that imagined time and place “ages and ages hence,” i.e, somewhere in the distant future. Linda Sue Grimes points out, “Those who interpret this poem as suggesting non-conformity take the word 'difference' to be a positive difference. But there is nothing in the poem that suggests that this difference signals a positive outcome. The speaker could not offer such information, because he has not lived the 'difference' yet."

And here is Frost biographer Jay Parini regarding that final stanza: “One imagines the speaker looking back from old age, his grandchildren at his feet. He says, ‘I took the road less traveled by,’ while knowing—in his heart of hearts—that an element of posing is involved here.”

In another discussion of the poem, Parini underscores a relevant Frostian characteristic: “As frequently happens in Frost, the poet builds into his poem a fierce contradiction: the speaker of the poem gestures toward a simple, even simplistic, reading, while the poet himself demands a more complex, ironic reading. The play between these antithetical readings becomes an important part of the poem’s dynamic” (154).

My intention in the preceding paragraphs has not been to dismantle a monument. Rather, I have been working toward an opening to a richer reading, one derived from the effort of, brace yourself, reading the actual words of the poem—all of them—closely. Note that I have not gone so far as to say what the poem means, per se. Yes, I may have suggested a little of what it is, but my real purpose is to present a few salient points on what it is not.

And why? After all, so I imagine hearing, what is so wrong with simply seeing it as inspirational? "Wrong" would not be the operative word. And yet I have to admit my preference to have that question go unanswered.

I suppose I take solace in the questioning of things and the possibility of understanding something not completely but better than. And here it has manifested in a gesture toward—a poem of all things. One small example in a world of received “wisdom.” And yet as is so often the case, evidence is right before our eyes to bring the assumed under serious question.

Take another look. It could make a difference. Perhaps not “all the difference,” but—no sigh here—a difference nonetheless.

(Additional source: Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance by George Monteiro)


Anonymous said...

To Mr. J Douglas:

I have to protest. For me -the reader- the poem has little or nothing to do with the poet or the poets intent. It has everything to do with how I (the reader) relate to and interact with the poem.

This poem has relevance in my life because of how I interpret it. That is why this poem and other are important to me - because they help me understand myself better - not because I feel some need to understand some hidden meaning.


Jay said...

First: Thanks for your response!

Next: Whoops. You may want to reread or at least reconsider what I wrote. I agree that the poet’s commentary, his or her supposed intent, or any biographical details are not necessary – some would say should be avoided – for the apprehension of a poem.

Nor is there any meaning to be sought “between the lines.” The lines themselves, however, and the words they contain—these things should be read. Closely.

The poetic endeavor involves the careful, artful selection and arrangement of words. The words deserve our attention—otherwise, what’s the point of it?

Bock said...

Are you an optimist or a pecimist? This poem will clearly show which you (the reader) are through your positive or negative interpretation of the writer choosing the less traveled path. Even if the intent of the poem was to "rib" a friend, the poem itself defines what type of person you are based on your interpretation of it. That's what gives the poem it's power.

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