Sunday, August 24, 2014

"The Road Not Taken"

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.

This well-known poem by Robert Frost is often interpreted as an affirmation of unconventional choices in life. 

Careful study of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the poem and of the text itself, however, puts that popular interpretation into serious doubt.

Here’s Wikipedia’s account of how the poem came to be written and the misunderstanding that ensued:

"Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost had returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of "The Road Not Taken".[1] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. However, Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended; in particular, Thomas took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas' decision to enlist in World War I.[1] Thomas was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras." (

If it is true that Frost intended the poem as “a gentle mocking of indecision,” that is a far cry from the popular view.  And a careful reader wouldn’t necessarily need Frost’s word for it to detect the author’s tongue in his cheek.  For one thing, the road “less traveled” in the last stanza is worn “really about the same” as the other one in the second stanza.  Secondly, the so-called “difference” is projected into the future, when the speaker imagines himself telling this story “with a sigh.”  Is that a sigh of affirmation, as the popular view would have it, or is it a sign of regret”?  In either case, it’s an imaginary memory recalling the “difference” between two roads that were actually “about the same.”  Is all this an elaborate way of mocking indecision about two similar choices?  And the human propensity of reading more significance into such choices than there actually is? 

And the history of the popular interpretation could be a commentary on our human propensity to put a good light on something that really doesn’t merit it.

However, claims about authors’ intentions are always problematic.  Even if the above statement about Frost’s intention can be documented, there is always the possibility of unconscious motives lurking beneath the surface of the text, of which the author himself may not have been aware.

Is it just indecision that is being mocked?  And is the mockery all that “gentle”?  Does the apparent simplicity and innocence on the surface of the poem mask a more sinister sense of complexity and darkness in human experience?

To the extent that the poem undercuts the significance we attribute to certain decisions in life, what does that say about free will?  Do we really make free and independent decisions, or do we just rationalize the unthinking choices we make?  Are the choices predetermined?  By fate, predestination our genetic dispositions, our unconscious urges, our social circumstances?  Are they more a matter of random chance than rational choice?  Is there order and meaning to our lives or are we buffeted by forces beyond our control? Is our sense of autonomy, order and control merely an illusion?  To what extent are we fooling ourselves about being the masters of our fate?

The speaker of the poem seems to recognize that “ages and ages hence” he will be making more of this event than it deserves, but that self-awareness does little more than acknowledge how we delude ourselves.  Read this way there might be a hint of bitter irony in the last stanza.  It is, perhaps, our human tendency toward self-deception that is being mocked.

Did the poem play a role in Edward Thomas’ decision to enlist in World War I and thereby hasten his death?  If so, then, not only can poetry have unintended meanings, it can also have unintended consequences, in this case a rather dire one.  Or, perhaps Thomas would have enlisted anyway, poem or no poem. 

In any case, the popular affirmative interpretation of a well-known poem may often overlook the darker, hidden depths within the text.