The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost’s 1915 poem is quoted a lot here at The Citadel.

It’s in The Guidon — on page 16, knobs! — which is the standard “how-to-be-a-cadet” book that must be memorized by all students.  It’s on posters and admissions materials.  Heck, it’s even referenced on the cover of a recent issue of The Citadel Magazine (mostly geared toward alumni), which carries the subtitle, “The Road Less Traveled.” Inside, on page 53, the famed lines of Frost’s poem appear to highlight the “uncommon paths to success” some of our graduates have taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by …

I sigh and shake my head when I see these things.

To be clear, it’s not that I disagree with the sentiment behind them.  Yes, The Citadel is an amazing place with many rather unique avenues to success in life. No question there. It’s just that, well, Frost’s poem does not mean what so many people apparently think it means.

And it’s not as if this misunderstanding is confined to the gates of El Cid. I’ve seen Frost’s poem misused in mainstream political speeches, on billboards in the rural Midwest, and on far too many Facebook or MySpace pages to count.

Indeed, I’d bet that at any given moment, someone, somewhere is misusing Frost’s “Road Not Taken.”  Call it Frost’s Law.

It’s sad to see, because Frost’s poem is a good one.  And it ain’t long.

So let’s read it, shall we?

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.

Good stuff.  Now, let’s do a bit of basic critical reading. 

Look at that first stanza again. Frost stands at a fork in the road, right?  Two roads diverging before him in a wood.  He’s got to choose one.  Pretty simple stuff.

Second stanza.  Look closely now. What differences did he discern between the possible paths?  One is “just as fair” as the other, and while one had “perhaps the better claim” due to lack of use, they were, actually, “about the same.”

Huh. Does that seem odd? Not what you expected?  Let’s read on.

In the third stanza Frost makes sure we didn’t miss the comparability of the two paths: “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”  So which was the road less traveled? Neither, apparently.  They were equal in all respects, with nothing noticeable to differentiate them.  In fact, when you think about it, the road less traveled is the one Frost didn’t take: by virtue of walking down the one, he made them unequal, making his chosen path the one more traveled.

Now to the fourth stanza, a small part of which is the only bit most folks ever seem to read.  Not you, though.  You’re reading it all.  Proud of yourself yet? You will be. Check it out again:

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. 

Remember now: did he really take the road less traveled? No.  He did not. That much is simple (or should be). Only slightly more complex is his second claim, that it “made all the difference.” Did it? Think about this in the practical terms of the two paths forking in the wood.  He took the one (more traveled now, remember), and not the other. So how can he know what would have happened had he taken the other?

The answer, of course, is that he cannot.  It’s impossible.  Perhaps a tree would have fallen on his head and killed him.  Perhaps he would have run into a leprechaun giving away his pot of gold.  Perhaps the path would have wandered for a few hundred yards before rejoining the one he did choose to take.  It doesn’t really matter, since he never took it and he’ll thus never know.

It turns out, therefore, that the oft-quoted pithy bit — 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— is, well, not true. More than that, it is the willingly self-deceptive lie of an old man, sighing as he looks back wistfully at his younger self and imagines in his self-important smugness that he’s made all the right decisions in his life.

Like everyone else, Frost’s narrator thinks he’s different and therefore better than other people.  But it’s a lie. Beginning to end. He’s rewriting his own history.

A bit different from the popular interpretation of the poem, isn’t it?  And you feel better for knowing that, right? Right?

6 Comments

  1. I’m going to disagree.

    First though, I should confess that I really dislike Frost’s poetry. Maybe it’s because, growing up, I was exposed to a lot of it (the place where I lived apparently included some of his grandkids, and so the locale took some pride in a perceived connection). Also, when I was teaching I spent a year in the college chorus, and one of the pieces I had to learn to sing was a musical version of this very poem. Feh.

    Anyway, while I don’t agree with the popular interpretation of the poem (which I think you nail quite thoroughly), I have to disagree with your alternative interpretation.

    I don’t think Frost is attempting to do an end run around Schroedinger (substituting a path for a cat), but rather the line and that has made all the difference to me stresses not so much the differences (which, as you point out, cannot truly be known), but rather the value of making a choice.

    So many of us, so much of the time, react to things in our lives, rather than exercising true volition and choosing. It’s certainly the easier way to go. Choice carries with it obligation and accountability and the weight of integrity. It’s also the only source of real power that we have as humans beings in terms of our own lives.

    Frost’s argument isn’t about the choice, so much as the choosing. Either path would serve, but instead of blinding wandering down one (or the other), he paused and made a choice. It’s that act of will, that makes the difference.

    Just my two cents, sir.

  2. A musical “Road Not Taken”?!? Wow. Sorry to hear that exists, Lawrence, much less that you had to do it.

    One of the lovely things about poetry, of course, is that it can bend to different viewpoints. Not to any viewpoint, of course, but to different ones nonetheless. The popular interpretation, I daresay, bends the poem so far that it breaks it.

    Not yours, my friend. I can see your reading, for sure, though I confess it still rings hollow for me in light of the narrator’s “sigh” of old age. To me, that self-aware moment is the key to the whole.

    I should add that the only reason this came up at all is that I recently taught the poem in one of my courses, and I felt like I had to drag a couple of the students into actually reading the words rather than assuming meaning based on their pre-existing misconception. They were certain that they knew it, and they were quite shocked to find there were other, far more likely readings.

    It was fun.

  3. Speaking as one of those alleged sigh-ers, I think Frost was just looking for something to rhyme with I and by. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

  4. I guess I always read the last stanza as being rather regretful. The paths were so similar that there was no way to determine the “better” path. So he made a choice based on what little he could and that choice has quite possibly made a huge difference in his life. But for better or worse…? Well, he’ll never know. I agree that it’s not really a motto to live by. I find it rather depressing– the idea of making seeming random choices every day that steer our lives, and we never know what we’re missing.

    I find your reading of it interesting, but I think I like Lawrence’s better. Both seem to work. I guess that’s the beauty of poetry! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Oh, sure, take his side. 🙂

    I think everyone also owes themselves a few minutes spent reading this brilliant little response to Frost by Lon Prater (whose work my students already now):

    The Roads Both Taken.

  6. Pingback: Quotes and Authenticity | Bionic Teaching

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