For this post, I have chosen to muse on a poem by Vermont’s first poet laureate, arguably one of the two or three most famous American poems we have. I want to consider it because the poem is so often read incorrectly. No, too strong: incompletely.
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 one is forevermore trotted out at graduations, retirement dinners, award ceremonies, and so on, always by way of illustrating the importance of Rugged Individualism – the bravery and benefit of taking one’s own course in life, of going against the grain if need be– of being an ornery Yankee, in short.
Such a reductive take on Frost’s effort shows a failure of attention to the poem’s own words, which explicitly indicate that the speaker’s choice of a path is downright arbitrary, the two roads before him being “really about the same.” He likewise makes clear some dissatisfaction at not being able to go back and try the other path. The poem, curiously enough, is called not “The Road Taken,” but “The Road Not Taken,” as if the author’s chief concern is sorrow over his choice. But logic dictates that if the road he does opt for represents Yankee self-sufficiency, then surely the other represents a sheeplike conformity. So why would he want to try that one too? Why is the one he does take not fairer, but “just as fair”?
In a letter to a friend, Frost observed that “Not one in ten will see the humor in the poem.” What could Frost have meant as funny here? Well, the humor, I would say, is ironic, designed less to induce laughter than a wry smile in those who get it.
Get what? Well, I turn to the final stanza, where Frost predicts that in his later years he “shall be telling” how once “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” He’ll be spinning such a tale, throwing in a theatrical sigh for good measure, and nine out of ten will fall for it!
But no, that’s too strong as well. The speaker here is not con man alone. If I earlier said that many read this poem incorrectly, I should have said they read it half correctly, because I think there is a lot of Emersonian self-reliance in “The Road Not Taken.” It’s only that as soon as we choose that and that only as its message, the “humor” undercuts our certainty, just as when we try to see the whole effort as an ironic sleight-of-hand, the self-reliant theme rings out.
“If you want a message,” Frost once quipped, “call Western Union.”
I just said that logic dictates the either/or reading of the poem, but the plain fact is that logic is rarely the right faculty for the writing or reading of poetry; we poets do not labor to produce that single message but a complex of thoughts and emotions. For me, poetry is so true an indication of our hearts’ and minds’ reality because it shows how multidimensional those minds and hearts are: the plain fact is that much great lyric entertains equal and opposite impulses at the same time, without, as John Keats put it so eloquently, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
As an English teacher, I have been as guilty as the next of asking my students to find “the main idea” of a given poem, and using it to illustrate something solid and permanent. But if the word idea has anything at all to do with lyric, then that idea is always ambivalent, rich, varied…and thus often even self-contradictory.