Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Road Not Understood

I'd like to clear something up, once and for all:

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is not a poem about individualism. The title is not "The Road Less Taken." The point is not that you are better off if you go against the common way. It is not, in any way, a triumphant ode to "going your own way."

I have no idea how this misconception came about. The poem isn't particularly dense. It's written in more or less plain English. Of course it's allegorical but not in a particularly lofty or hard-to-understand way. It's not Shakespeare; it's Robert Fucking Frost. I mean, just read it!

No, seriously: read it. Even if you've read it before and think you remember it, take a look and thoroughly process every word:

"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 marked 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."

Let's summarize:

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals that he would have liked to have taken both roads, but has to choose. In the second stanza, he explains that he chose the one that appeared less used. In the third stanza, he tells us that he still would like to take the more traveled path one day but knows the possibility is remote. In the fourth and final stanza, he projects his future state of mind regarding this choice. He says he will speak of this moment "with a sigh," because the path he chose irrevocably changed his life.

Now let's count the ways that this has absolutely nothing to do with the common "individualism" interpretation of this poem:

1. From the beginning, the speaker wants to take both roads, so much so that he hesitates a very long time before choosing. This hardly screams "individualism."

2. Once he makes his choice, he still wishes to take both roads. He plans to come back to the first path later and agonizes over how choosing the second path will affect his future.

3. The speaker believes that many years later, he will look back on the profound affect this choice had on his life "with a sigh." Sighs indicate many things, among them regret, longing, nostalgia, resignation, melancholy, possibly even sadness and desolation. They do not indicate triumph, happiness, self-assurance, or pride. (Sighs do also imply relief, but I don't believe that meaning is intended here given how the rest of the poem suggests the speaker continually desires to take both paths. It is also indicated that both paths lead to good places and that the speaker is concerned about his choice only because the paths lead to very different places, not to good and bad places.)

4. The speaker remarks in the second stanza that "Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same," meaning that the less-traveled road was only slightly less traveled. He isn't choosing between a safe, paved road and a wild, untamed, unexplored one. He's choosing between otherwise identical roads where one has slightly more grass. In fact, in the third stanza, he reiterates their similarity and relative un-traveled-ness: "And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black."

5. The second path may be less-traveled, but it may actually be the easier road to travel on. It's described as "grassy" and "wanting wear," which could imply that it is softer and less worn out. In any event, no difficulty is emphasized here. The road isn't steeper or overgrown with brambles. While making the choice based on the wear of the road does imply an individualist motivation, this is presented simply as a given rather than the message of the poem.

6. If Frost had really wanted to make a pro-individualist poem, he could have left everything the same except make the speaker take the first path. Then the regret at the end would be turned toward not taking the less-traveled path instead of the other way around. Given the context of the American sense of life, one could then reasonably interpret the poem as being about individualism.

7. Now the final line, which I suspect is 99% responsible for the endless misinterpretations of this poem: "I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference." Ah, there it is, that powerful individualist sentiment, the declaration of the virtue of independence, the...wait, where is it again? So he took the less-traveled road, which we already knew, and that "made all the difference." What difference? Is he happier? Richer? Taller? Stronger? Does he live longer or have more sex? We don't know, and that's the point: neither does he, because he never gets the chance to take the other path.

That's what this poem is about, which any dipshit should be able to tell by looking at the damn title. It's about the overwhelming bitterness of knowing that you're about to make a choice that will change your life forever, in some way, but you will never know in what way. It's about seeing a pivotal moment in your life for what it is while still being unable to do anything about it.

This is an excellent poem. The cadence is beautiful, the emotion evoked is poignant, and the imagery is simultaneously powerful and accessible. The theme is universal and important, and the problem addressed is immortal. As poems go, it's easy to understand. But still, somehow, everyone, even very intelligent, educated people, gets it wrong. Over and over and over.

If this is what people do to Frost, imagine what it must be like for T.S. Elliot. I'm surprised sticking your head in an oven isn't a path taken by more poets.

Yours in erudition,

S. Misanthrope


  1. You've got it wrong, my miserable friend. This isn't a bitter rumination, it is clearly lacking in that spice.

    It is about the necessity of choice, of decisive choice, in the marked absence of certainty. That's where the close comparison of the two paths comes in, as any mis-misanthrope worth his DNA could tell you.

    And while you scorn at the vacuity of Frost's "difference," you overlook the historical necessity of that difference. "All the difference" is measured by what was, by what his life was, whatever it was. His "difference" just means the determination of the factors in his life, not their elevation or decrepidation.
    We live, we choose, and without knowing for sure, without knowing which choice it is, without knowing which we ought to choose, we choose our lives.

  2. I do not think that the poem is necessarily lacking in bitterness. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way..." has always struck me as extremely bittersweet, if not downright bitter. It certainly does smack of Frost's characteristic love affair with ambiguity. In any case I don't think the emotional tone is of primary concern here.

    The point of this post comes across loud and clear - this poem is so often trotted out as a banner of individualism during godawful graduation speeches and the like, which is absolutely maddening. It's in the same vein as "Mending Wall": supposedly about how we should establish good boundaries, right? :)

    Thanks for this, SM!

  3. From Mindy: "It is about the necessity of choice, of decisive choice, in the marked absence of certainty."

    While this idea is implicitly assumed by the speaker in the poem, I disagree that this is what the poem "is about." Like music, (good) poetry is primarily about emotion and feeling, not a didactic message. So while the choice is necessary, the poem is illustrating how that choice feels, and the feeling is not all good.

    My primary focus here is on two things: 1. what the poem is *not* about (specifically the "graduation speech" interpretation identified by Elandwyn) and 2. being pithily funny. These goals make it unnecessary, indeed, outright superfluous to provide a detailed analysis of all the things the poem *is* about. They also draw the focus more toward the negative emotions evoked in the poem, including bitterness; however I do not mean to suggest that these are the only emotions present. I would described the overall "feel" of the poem as bittersweet rather than bitter, because the speaker, while not wishing he had made a different choice, does wish he could have somehow trod both paths.

    Also, my condolences about your stutter, Mindy. That is an extremely unfortunate affliction. But do take heart: I know many people with your problem who have gone on to lead moderately fulfilling lives, though I admit none of them has a stutter so extreme that it comes across when typing.

    Very truly y-yours,

    S. Mis-misanthrope

  4. Was re-reading 'The Romantic Manifesto' today, and I was reminded of something similar about the contrast of Roark and Keating. The difference between them isn't necessarily that one makes "better" decisions. As is established in one of their first dialogues, it's not about how Roark manages to make good choices, but about how he manages to make choices at all, rather than let other people choose. It's an interesting contrast to Frost here as well, since the impression is that Roark is quietly content with his choices and is not troubled... which, actually, is something that really frustrates me about The Fountainhead, and which Frost gets right. Important choices are hard to make and no amount of intellectual certainty is going to dissolve all emotional concern over whether one is taking the right path.

  5. I've observed and remarked many times that Rand does not dive into the details of decision-making. I notice this most with Dagny's choice between Rearden and Galt. For Dagny, there basically is no decision process; she's only torn about how to execute her choice, not what the choice should be.

    I used to find it frustrating, too, but my frustration came from looking at Rand's fiction as "how-to" manuals for life. That's not at all what they are, nor what they are meant to be. It would be grossly improper for Rand to have written them that way, given what she was trying to achieve with her novels. She was also adamantly not a psychologist, so while she's very good at expounding on how things should be, she does not discuss how to get yourself there, at least not in the kind of detail necessary for someone to be able to use her works to make an extreme change to their psyche.

    That said, I don't think Rand was unaware of the process. She obviously made many difficult decisions in her life. She probably experienced the feelings Frost describes in his poetry but didn't think them worth writing about. Just one of the many reasons why division of labor is so handy.

    Interestingly, to me at least, Rand was a big Hugo fan, and Hugo, more than any other writer I can think of, was totally obsessed with the very decision-making process Rand tended to ignore. This is one of the reasons why I often find Hugo excruciatingly boring, so, in the end, I am glad Rand decided to whittle down the inner conflict crap. It leaves more room for explosions and kinky sex.

  6. Well, quite. I can't disagree with leaving room for kinky, explosive sex either.

    I suppose I'd prefer novels that meet it halfway. I mean, I'm not looking for "how-to"s, but at least *some* agonising over choices, so that I feel I can slip into the skin of the characters somewhat. I want to feel them grappling with their decisions, but it doesn't have to be that excruciating detail that Hugo goes into, of course.

    So, I'm not talking about inner-conflict in terms of an on going angst, necessarily. More just something of a psychological process, so that these characters feel more human. As much as I admire her characters, and I enjoy seeing them follow through and what results, I'm never entirely engaged with them... well... that's not totally true: characters like Wynand I do get very engaged with, and I think one of the virtues in her writing is the way she explores her heroes through the way other people talk about and struggle with them, and the kinds of choices heroes force other people to make (e.g. Wynand, of course, but also: Stephen Mallory; the boy on the bike; Eddie Williers).

    In fact, that's an interesting point I should think more of: the really poignant moments for me, in fiction, are when we have this definite character, but then we look at him/her through the lens of other people. For instance, my favourite scene in 'Cyrano de Bergerac' is when Cyrano gives his great rousing speech about how he stands not high but he stands alone -- and then, as his friend quite rightly points out, Cyrano may rant and rail about his virtue (which he does possess), but he must admit finally that the ranting itself is just an act to disguise his own pain over not having Roxanne.