The Road Not Taken

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The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.

The Road Not TakenIn his review on Amazon, Edward Bukowsky writes of the book:

David Orr offers a fresh perspective on “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, a poem that “everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong.” If we pay close attention to Frost’s words, we note that the roads the traveler is contemplating are worn “about the same.” There is no obvious reason to pick one over the other. Yet the narrator tells us, “I took the one less traveled by.” Did he not admit that both were equally trodden? Is he being disingenuous? Or is he rationalizing his choice, perhaps in an effort to convince himself that he is in control of his fate?

In the review of the book in The Observer, it notes,

The fact that there are so many readings of “The Road Not Taken” speaks not only to Frost’s strength as a poet but his desire to be misinterpreted. Frost, who died in 1963, is associated with the rustic farm life of New England, but he spent the first decade of his life in San Francisco, traveled extensively, and was more urbane than he let on (though he never graduated from college).

I was surprised to read this interpretation and had to admit to myself I had never attempted to analyse the poem beyond the basic and popular idea that it was about individuality and choice. That’s what we were taught; that’s what I accepted.

But as you can easily see when you deconstruct the poem more carefully, that Frost makes the point that the paths are not particularly different. In fact, he says,

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same…

Which I can’t recall ever reading that way before I read the book reviews. David Orr, speaking in an interview on PBS, explained the poem thus:

He’s saying, I shall be saying this with a sigh some ages and ages hence. But it’s easy to forget what happens in the middle of the poem. In the middle of the poem, it becomes very clear that the two roads that the speaker is confronting are actually the same, or at least interchangeable.
And, in fact, we should probably take a look at those lines, just so people can understand what I’m talking about.
In the middle of the poem, Frost writes: “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…”
…what Frost is suggesting is that when the speaker later claims that the road he took was less traveled and that it made all the difference, the speaker will just be making up a story after the fact to justify a choice that maybe wasn’t even really a choice in the first place.

On Biographile, Nathan Gelgud writes that in the 1970’s, Frost’s poem inspired a growing self-help industry focused on choice and individuality:

Orr also investigates our society’s obsession with choice, as reflected in the self-help industry that Peck helped create. Just search “how to make decisions” on Amazon, Orr suggests, to get a sense of how hung up we are on the idea that the decisions we make and our methods for making them hold keys to a happier, more successful life.

Still, regardless of interpretation, Frost’s poem has resonance even today. When I read the lines:

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.

I too find myself all too often looking back to choices made, roads taken decades before, and wondering what might have been had I taken the other. I suppose it’s all too easy to rationalize the one taken as the best choice that led to this moment, but, as it seems Frost says, perhaps they weren’t really so different after all. Non-attachment to the past is probably the better approach these days.

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