Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two Roads

It's time that I answer Alicia's challenge:
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 Road Not Taken, penned by Robert Frost, has proved an inspiriation to the succeeding generations since the time it was first published.
Now, I'm no expert on poetry, but I do believe that anyone has the right to their own insights and can interpret the poem into whatever they think it is saying.
Many people take this particular poem and pull something vastly wise and inspirational. And for that, I cannot blame them. And yet, I have to ask, are they reading it with their eyes closed? Dr. Suess taught us long ago that reading with our eyes closed is not nearly as effective as when we read with them wide open. Let me explicate what my open eyes found:
I memorized this poem for an assignment in my English 102 class (thank you Mrs. Schruer), an easy task since we'd performed it set to music in Symphonic Choir a few semesters before that.
People have tagged a meaning onto it so firmly, a meaning so deeply profound, full of age old wisdom, that anyone who dare to chisel at its meaning with a questioning aim is dismissed as a heretic and a fun-wrecker. And yet, here I go with my chisel. The publicly praised meaning, "take the road less travelled by the world, and it will make all the difference."
Scores of stories can be fitted to this moral, and rightly so when we live in a world of swift moral decay, but just because it's true doesn't mean that Frost was saying it.
And now, my insights:
The more I examine this poem, the more I see of a regretful tone, and hesitancy to choose rather than the tone of triumph and confidence.
First, the color in this poem adds to the tone of it. The wood is desribed as being "yellow", an indication of fall, age, and decay. The narrator also mentions the roads covered "in leaves no step had trodden black". Black, darkness, evil, the traveler was looking for which might be the darker path to help in his decision.
Next, notice the tone created by the wording: "sorry I could not travel both" "I doubted if I should ever come back" "I shall be telling this with a sigh" (an ambiguous phrase- a sigh of relief, despair, or weariness of a tired traveler?).
Our wood-faring traveler is hesitant to choose. He stood a long time, longing for forsight as to what lay ahead on each road. He is daunted by the fact that his decision is not quite clear- shrouded in mystery, hidden in leaves, indiscernable. And yet with all his careful comparison and observation, he concludes that the two roads were "really about the same". This idea is repeated in the next line: "And both that morning equally lay".
The triviality of the long-pondered decision is shown in the traveler's admission that the roads were pretty much "about the same".
So why does he say in the final stanza that taking "the road less-traveled... has made all the difference"? The phrase, "made all the difference" carries a positive indication in our speech today. But taking it at face value, we could ask, "Made all the difference, for BETTER or for WORSE?" Is it possible that he is forseeing himself agonizing over his choice? This would follow his hesitant attitude toward the choice to start with. How could he, with his admitted lack of discernment or foresight, possibly be thinking that his choice would prove a triumph in making all the difference for the better in his life? There is nothing in the poem to suggest that; it was our society that made that suggestion. In view of the traveler's thought that the choice between one forest path and another would make "all the difference" later, it's easy to see how he has a tendency to turn the trivial into something paramount. Keep this in mind as you consider Frost's own commentary on the poem:
"One stanza of The Road Not Taken was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England, was found three or four years later, and I couldn't bear not to finish it. I wasn't thinking about myself there, but about a friend who'd gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other. He was hard on himself that way."
So what was written as a sort of jab at a friend was taken by the world and blown so completely out of proportion that the real meaning at the heart of the poem now lays shrouded in yellow leaves. I think Frost must've enjoyed seeing what people derived from his work.
There is one phrase in Frost's comment that I find particularly useful when undertaking a study of any of his works: "I wasn't thinking about myself". I think it's natural to approach the poem thinking that the narrator is the poet speaking. It was Frost writing it, and so it is natural to conclude that what the narrator says is what Frost thinks. There is more clarity in keeping an objective neutrality in view of the narrator while navigating through the text.
It makes sense that the poem is not titled, "The Road Less-Traveled". It is called, "The Road Not Taken". Yet another regretful look back at the choice, agonizing (with a sigh?) that he didn't go the other way.


Alicia said...


I love it. I love it. You did a whopping job.

Thanks for doing this. I loved reading this more than you can know. I've been feeling awful today, and it was so nice to read something so refreshing (after sitting so long in one attitude).

Thank you a million times. I agree with everything you said here. You hit the nail right on the head. I bet Frost is somewhere shaking his fist and saying, "Finally! Someone got it!" It woudln't be a shocker if he was weeping -just a bit.

Alicia said...

wouldn't. I meant wouldn't. And I love what you've done with the blog. You're a mastermind.

Steven said...

Well, I don't really deserve such high praise. I published it while still in first-draft form. But I can't go back and fix it now. The road has already been traveled. O wait, yes I can. Maybe when I have a minute. I'll fix it, by jingo.

Steven said...

Yet knowing how way leads on to way...

Alicia said...

I must also say that now, at least, I won't be rolling my eyes at the poem. I will be rolling my eyes everytime I hear a choir sing it though. It can't be helped. I'm snobby like that.

Steven said...

I know. After the long look at the poem, I can't believe we sang those words with such heart-felt emotion. I could never do that again -I couldn't suppress the laughs.