In this past Sunday’s NY Post I was shocked to find an article on Robert Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It wasn’t in the book review or entertainment section where something literary might happen to be published. It was in the main news section, and the news worthy issue was a newly published book of literary criticism that overturns the conventional reading of the poem. From the news article:
It is the most famous poem in American literature, a staple of pop songs, newspaper columnists and valedictorian speeches….
Everyone can quote those final two lines. But everyone, writes David Orr in his new book “The Road Not Taken” (Penguin Press), gets the meaning wrong.
The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.
First off, it is not the most famous poem of American literature. Let’s make that clear up front. I don’t know where the author of the article gets that from. Certainly there are poems by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, e.e cummings, John Crow Ransom, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, T. S. Eliot, and so on that are more famous. There are poems by Robert Frost himself that are more famous, such as “Stopping by the Woods.” “The Road Not Taken” is often read in American schools and perhaps most Americans of some education and desire to read poetry have read it. I certainly have and I have to say I think that wherever I was required to read this poem I was taught the conventional view that it is a poem about individuality. Here’s the poem in its entirety.
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
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.
The conventional reading of the poem would be that the narrator chose a road—symbolic for our life journey—less traveled, meaning his mode of life was more original, more individualistic, and in the end was gratified. I can tell you that when I read the poem I envision the narrator to be Frost himself and I conjecture that the road taken was a life of a poet, which does not provide much financial wealth, does have a life of fulfillment.
However, there is a bit of external information that sheds light on the poem. The narrator is not supposed to be Frost but a friend of Frost, a English poet named Edward Thomas. The news article goes on to say:
In 1912, Frost was nearly 40 and frustrated by his lack of success in the United States. After Thomas praised his work in London, the two became friends, and Frost visited him in Gloucestershire. They often took walks in the woods, and Frost was amused that Thomas always said another path might have been better. “Frost equated [it] with the romantic predisposition for ‘crying over what might have been,’ ” Orr writes, quoting Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson.
Frost thought his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and protest, ‘Stop teasing me,’ ” Thompson writes.
He didn’t. Like readers today, Thomas was confused by it and maybe even thought he was being lampooned.
One Edward Thomas biographer suggested that “The Road Not Taken” goaded the British poet, who was indecisive about joining the army.
So the poem then according to David Orr is a satiric treatment of Edward Thomas’ indecisiveness. The poem does not end on a sense of satisfactory pride but on a sigh of regret.
The article says that Thomas was confused by it, and I can understand why. Before I get to that, let me support Orr’s reading by saying that Robert Frost was not a Romantic poet, so it is very much with the body of his work that this poem goes against a Romantic tradition of idealizing individualism. Frost should be read as a modernist poet with modernist themes, especially of the darkness that is emphasized in the modernist understanding of human nature. While in theme he is closer to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, his form and style tend to be those established during 19th century. So while he explores themes of pessimism and alienation, the language and forms are from a different era, which contrasts in a way that is dissonant.
For instance, Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” while in the form of a Wordsworthian blank verse monologue such as “TinternAbbey” the poem is about how nature fights humanity, and how the darkness in humanity requires that fences be built. Or while Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” has the feel of an idealized landscape say of Percy Shelly, it’s actually about the underlying death that is in all living things. Or while Frost’s sonnet “Once by the Pacific” echoes John Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Frost’s characterization of the Pacific Ocean is of a destructive force coming from God’s outrage instead of Keats’ wonder and awe the Pacific inspires.
This disconnect between Frost’s modernist thought and his Romantic era forms has led him to not be rated in the upper regime of modernist poets. Scholars downgrade him (I hate such rating systems) because he failed to articulate his themes in newer, more appropriate form. Is that fair? This article has made me realize how unfair that is and how wrong.
Orr writes that “The Road Not Taken” is “a thoroughly American poem. The ideas that [it] holds in tension — the notion of choice, the possibility of self-deception — are concepts that define . . . the United States.”
Whether the theme of self-deception defines the United States or not may be arguable (this poem is not even about an American) but the theme of self-deception is clearly a modernist one, and I think a profound one, aesthetically expressed through the style and form. The narrator feels that his choice was one of individuality when in fact it was purely arbitrary. It reminds me of how a young person claims individuality through their rebellious clothing and haircuts, when in fact all their peers have the same clothing and haircuts. There isn’t any real individuality there, just a difference. The form of the poem leads you to think this is a Romantic poem of individualistic expression, but it isn’t, bringing to the fore the narrator’s self-deception.
So how is a reader supposed to see this theme of self-deception? This is what I think confused Edward Thomas. The poem reads as a poem of individuality. Here’s where a literary critic can help and guide the reader, or by reading enough Frost poetry you can come to the conclusion yourself. The constant disconnect between theme and form in Frost’s poetry is intentional and aesthetically supports his modernism. It takes placing this poem within the context of Frost’s life work to see the irony. Orr identifies that disconnect as by holding things in tension. Yes, I would agree but I would go beyond that and say it creates a false foundation, a shaky foundation, where what you think is solid ground is actually illusionary. As a result of understanding this, Robert Frost’s poetry has grown in my eyes.
It’s great to hear a poem read out loud, and while you can find on youtube Robert Frost reading the poem himself, I particularly liked the way this reader read it. Hope you enjoy it.