Frosted Roads

I’m far from being a literary expert and even further from knowing anything about poetry (but, of course, I know what I like). That said, there are some poems I’ve picked up along the way and cherished. I’ve posted here about three of them: Desiderata, Invictus, and To His Coy Mistress. These poems all have foundational roles in my worldview.

Yet, surprisingly, I haven’t yet written about the most foundational of them all: The Road Not Taken, by the great American poet, Robert Frost. In my youth, a friend once whined at me, “You go out of your way to be different, don’t you!” Yes. Yes, I do. Just like the poem says to.

Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t say that at all.

It turns out to be a delightful example of how we construct reality, of how something that “everyone knows” is actually something else entirely.

It’s also a great example of how art is an ink blot. We bring ourselves to art and see ourselves in it. (Which is exactly why women and minority groups often feel disenfranchised from mainstream — that is to say white male — art.)

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What everyone “knows” comes from the last stanza of the poem:

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.

In particular, those powerful three last lines.

Certainly the idea of exploring where we, and others, have not been, at least for many of us, has a very compelling allure. It’s one reason people climb mountains and explore jungles.

In part it’s curiosity, in part it’s discovery, but it’s also a desire to take that less traveled path because it’s less traveled.

Some of us, yes, do go out of our way to seek the different. (It’s what being a gourmet is all about.)

And, in truth, if we take just that last stanza, it works perfectly well as a foundation for that gourmet philosophy. We’re always free to take what we want from art.

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Even when it’s the opposite of what the author really said.

If nothing else, one can always take art as the seed for one’s own thinking. (I think that’s generally how it should go. We are not mere vessels into which art is poured. We are sieves; art passes through and we catch bits of it.)

A hint lies in the poem’s title: The Road Not Taken

Not the road less traveled, but the road not taken. In fact, the poem explicitly says, of that other road, “Though as for that the passing there, Had worn them really about the same.”

It immediately goes on to say, “And both that morning equally lay, In leaves, no step had trodden black.”

So the other road is not less traveled. It is simply not taken.

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There is even a hint of dissonance in the first two lines of that last stanza.

Why is the telling speaking of “ages and ages hence,” and why “telling this with a sigh”? If the roads really weren’t different, what made so much difference?

Could it be the speaker will tell a different tale in the future?

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I think it’s lines like this that explain why I never got around to writing about something that is such a formative work for me.

I’m not particular good at literary interpretation (so much goes over my head), but I never felt like I really understood the poem. I just, as so many have, founded a philosophy on my interpretation of it.

Which, as I said, is valid, but it’s fascinating to me how something so deeply a part of our culture turns out to be something else entirely.

The idea supposed espoused by the poem is so well-known that it is used world-wide as a meme. Everyone knows what it means. Everyone gets it. It’s as well-recognized as Micky Mouse and Superman.

A major cross-culture landmark, and it’s not what nearly everyone thinks it is. (It’s a bit like that “Eskimos have 50 words for snow thing,” which is also not true.)

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The reality is that Frost wrote the poem for a friend of his, Edward Thomas, who Frost once said was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”

Apparently Thomas was inclined to agonize over decisions and fret about the ones he made. Frost’s poem is, in fact, lighthearted mockery.

The, oh so poetic, irony here is that Frost sending the poem to his friend caused Thomas, who’d been struggling over whether to join his good friend Frost in America, or go off to war and defend his native land, England, to finally decide.

In 1915, Edward Thomas enlisted. He was killed in action in 1917.

Which adds a very poignant background to the poem.

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Here’s a very good YouTube video that explores this background:

There’s also this pretty good article from 2015 — the one-hundred-year anniversary of the poem.

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And here’s the full text of the poem:

The Road Not Taken

~Robert Frost (1915)

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.

Stay Frosty, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “Frosted Roads

  • Wyrd Smythe

    121 posts to go (to 1000)…

  • rung2diotimasladder

    How funny. I have to admit, I had no idea what this poem was really about. Just goes to show how important context is.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I didn’t either, although those earlier lines have always bothered me. The poem reads so much more smoothly for me now that I’ve seen that video (which got me looking into what others had to say — something I’m prone to avoid while traveling the “less traveled” road 😉 ).

      It turns out (potential new hobby and/or interest!) that some of Frost’s other poems are more subversive than common knowledge understands them. I was reading about Mending Wall (after looking up the text for a quote I wanted to use), and that’s another one with much deeper — and different — meaning than popularly understood.

      I’ve always had a gut liking for Frost, and his work turns out to be a lot more interesting than I’d realized!

      • rung2diotimasladder

        That’s the Frost poem I’m more familiar with. Let’s see if I can remember the first line…’Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Then something about boulders? Sun? Ah, now I’ll have to look…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        An important first line!

        Most people feel the poem expresses the twice stated line, “Good fences make good neighbours.” The implication being that borders and boundaries are good. Which is arguably true.

        But it’s Frost’s neighbor who makes that claim (twice), and in the poem Frost questions whether fences are necessary.

        “Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
        Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
        Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
        What I was walling in or walling out,
        And to whom I was like to give offence.
        Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
        That wants it down.”

        I’m starting to get the impression Frost is downright subversive! 😀

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I get the impression he’s a tree hugging nature lover (even if nature is destructive). Here’s one that seems appropriate right about now:
        https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57834/christmas-trees-56d23bb00debf

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Cool, I’ve never read that one before. Interesting poem. Should I sell my trees or not?! 😮

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Maybe he’d reconsider negotiating if he found out how much I paid for mine. But I can’t complain, it’s a lovely noble fir…now let’s see if I can keep it from drying out before Christmas.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, the Christmas tradition of trying to keep a dead tree looking alive enough to get through the holiday. But nothing beats a real tree — I’m not a fan of the artificial ones. I do get a kick out the first trash day after Christmas when almost everyone puts out their tree. It’s usually snowy here, so the snowbanks along the street are dotted with a variety of recumbent pines.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        BTW, those walls in New England are pretty interesting. When you go for a hike in the woods, you’re bound to come across them, and in those moments it’s amazing to think that the thick, shady forest you’re in was once cleared farmland. Since the walls are fairly short, it’s not clear what they were used for, but here’s one theory:

        https://vtdigger.org/2019/01/27/vermonts-stone-walls-never-meant-fences/

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, that’s right, you hale from those parts. I’ve seen pictures of those old low stone walls, but I had no idea they were so prevalent. Almost a quarter of a million miles of wall!

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Isn’t that neat? They’re this beautiful mystery in the woods. I’ve heard they were used to corral sheep (apparently anything else could just jump over them). As for this article saying they’re like anthill rubbish, I can’t quite buy that. Maybe some are, but these are too well-constructed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        They may be the result of clearing the field they enclose of big rocks, but they don’t seem to be just cast aside like the dirt of an anthill. Even if they were so purely utilitarian, humans will make them decorative as well. We’re really into decorating our shit. Or our bodies.

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