David Orr has written the best popular explanation to date of the most popular poem in American history.
That poem is “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, and its subject is familiar to most of us who attended an American or a Yankophilic middle school at some point in the last century: A traveler comes to a fork in the woods and, after sweating over his direction in life, takes the road less traveled, and it makes all the difference. Most of us have also heard the story that says this is all bunk. As interpreted in The New Yorker or “Orange Is the New Black,” the poem is not in fact an ode to individualism but a joke at the expense of individualist hokum. The traveler hasn’t been changed by his choice of a long and lonely road, but tells us that he’s going to tell that story when he’s older, even though he had no particular reason to choose the road he took. The other looked as grassy, as trodden, as easy or hard or distinctive. It was an arbitrary choice, this national myth of choosing independently and bravely and becoming the sum of your choices or finding yourself.
Yet according to the corrective that David Orr offers in “The Road Not Taken,” his new book-length analysis, the poem is neither an ode nor a dark joke but somehow both at once. It doesn’t accept or reject its myth of choice but sets us up to feel the tensions involved in having to choose, as if each reader were the traveler. His decision might have been arbitrary, it might have been meaningful. It might have changed him deeply, it might not have. The options “blur and merge,” Orr writes; they are “like overlapping ghosts.” As he evocatively puts it, “Two potential poems revolve around each other, separating and overlapping like clouds in a way that leaves neither reading perfectly visible.”
Orr — who writes the On Poetry column for the Book Review — is the first person to argue this at length for a popular audience, and he’s persuasive enough to give us good reason to hope that his interpretation will lodge a toehold in conventional wisdom. This holds for the poet as well as the poem. If Frost’s most famous poem is representative, and if Orr is right about it, we should see Frost not as the earnest Yankee sage beloved by junior high school teachers or the dark jokester expounded by college professors, but as an artist able to evoke and clarify the conflicts that follow from the ways we think we understand ourselves.
Orr shows us how the poem plays on uncertainties implicit in a distinctly American way to think about choice. “If we were to dream about what it means to choose,” he writes, “that dream would look something like ‘The Road Not Taken,’ ” but only because we tend to think unconsciously that our choices are our own, should be willed freely and can, if important and hard, make us or show us who we are.
The poem casts doubt on this in ways echoed by studies and theories of decision making, agency and selfhood; studies of people forgetting what they chose or why they chose it or telling themselves stories to justify decisions they think they made but didn’t; theories of the self as found or made or just another sort of story we tell. In Orr’s lucid reading, the poem brings to life and dances on the grave of the plucky, nonconformist, self-determined and self-realized person at the heart of the American myth of individualism.Continue reading the main story
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong
By David Orr
184 pp. Penguin Press. $25.95.
My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.
—Frost to Leonidas W. Payne Jr., November 1, 1927
“The Road Not Taken” has confused audiences literally from the beginning. In the spring of 1915, Robert Frost sent an envelope to English critic Edward Thomas that contained only one item: a draft of “The Road Not Taken,” under the title “Two Roads.” According to Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson, Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside—an impulse that Frost equated with the romantic predisposition for “crying over what might have been.” Frost, Thompson writes, believed that his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and would protest, ‘Stop teasing me.’”
That wasn’t what occurred. Instead, Thomas sent Frost an admiring note in which it was evident that he had assumed the poem’s speaker was a version of Frost, and that the final line was meant to be read as generations of high school valedictorians have assumed. The sequence of their correspondence on the poem is a miniature version of the confusion “The Road Not Taken” would provoke in millions of subsequent readers:
(1) Frost sends the poem to Thomas, with no clarifying text, in March or April of 1915.
(2) Thomas responds shortly thereafter in a letter now evidently lost but referred to in later correspondence, calling the poem “staggering” but missing Frost’s intention.
(3) Frost responds in a letter (the date is unclear) to ask Thomas for further comment on the poem, hoping to hear that Thomas understood that I was at least in part addressing his own behavior.
(4) Thomas responds in a letter dated June 13, 1915, explaining that “the simple words and unemphatic rhythms were not such as I was accustomed to expect great things, things I like, from. It staggered me to think that perhaps I had always missed what made poetry poetry.” It’s still clear that Thomas doesn’t quite understand the poem’s stance or Frost’s “joke” at his expense.
(5) Frost writes back on June 26, 1915: “Methinkest thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem. I wonder if it was because you were trying too much out of regard for me that you failed to see that the sigh [in line 16] was a mock sigh, hypo-critical for the fun of the thing. I don’t suppose I was ever sorry for anything I ever did except by assumption to see how it would feel.”
(6) Thomas responds on July 11, 1915: “You have got me again over the Path not taken & no mistake…I doubt if you can get anyone to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them what kind of laugh they are to turn on.”
Edward Thomas was one of the keenest literary thinkers of his time, and the poem was meant to capture aspects of his own personality and past. Yet even Thomas needed explicit instructions—indeed, six entire letters—in order to appreciate the series of double games played in “The Road Not Taken.” That misperception galled Frost. As Thompson writes, Frost “could never bear to tell the truth about the failure of this lyric to perform as he intended it. Instead, he frequently told an idealized version of the story” in which, for instance, Thomas said, “What are you trying to do with me?” or “What are you doing with my character?” One can understand Frost’s unhappiness, considering that the poem was misunderstood by one of his own early biographers, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (“Thomas, all his life, lived on the deeply isolated, lonely and subjective ‘way less travelled by’ which Frost had chosen in youth”), and also by the eminent poet-critic Robert Graves, who came to the somewhat baffling conclusion that the poem had to do with Frost’s “agonized decision” not to enlist in the British army. (There is no evidence that Frost ever contemplated doing so, in agony or otherwise.) Lyrics that are especially lucid and accessible are sometimes described as “critic-proof”; “The Road Not Taken”—at least in its first few decades—came close to being reader-proof.
* * *
The difficulty with “The Road Not Taken” starts, appropriately enough, with its title. Recall the poem’s conclusion: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” These are not only the poem’s best-known lines, but the ones that capture what most readers take to be its central image: a lonely path that we take at great risk, possibly for great reward. So vivid is that image that many readers simply assume that the poem is called “The Road Less Traveled.” Search-engine data indicates that searches for “Frost” and “Road Less Traveled” (or “Travelled”) are extremely common, and even accomplished critics routinely refer to the poem by its most famous line. For example, in an otherwise penetrating essay on Frost’s ability to say two things at once, Kathryn Schulz, the book reviewer for New York magazine, mistakenly calls the poem “The Road Less Traveled” and then, in an irony Frost might have savored, describes it as “not-very-Frosty.”
Because the poem isn’t “The Road less Traveled.” It’s “The Road Not Taken.” And the road not taken, of course, is the road one didn’t take—which means that the title passes over the “less traveled” road the speaker claims to have followed in order to foreground the road he never tried. The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do. Or is it? The more one thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes to be sure who is doing what and why. As the scholar Mark Richardson puts it:
Which road, after all, is the road “not taken”? Is it the one the spear takes, which, according to his last description of it, is “less travelled”—that is to say, not taken by others? Or does the title refer to the supposedly better-travelled road that the speaker himself fails to take? Precisely who is not doing the taking?
We know that Frost originally titled the poem “Two Roads,” so renaming it “The Road Not Taken” was a matter of deliberation, not whim. Frost wanted readers to ask the questions Richardson asks.
More than that, he wanted to juxtapose two visions—two possible poems, you might say—at the very beginning of his lyric. The first is the poem that readers think of as “The Road Less Traveled,” in which the speaker is quietly congratulating himself for taking an uncommon path (that is, a path not taken by others). The second is the parodic poem that Frost himself claimed to have originally had in mind, in which the dominant tone is one of self-dramatizing regret (for a path not taken by the speaker). These two potential poems revolve around each other, separating and overlapping like clouds in a way that leaves neither reading perfectly visible. If this is what Frost meant to do, then it’s reasonable to wonder if, as Thomas suggested, he may have outsmarted himself in addition to casual readers.
But this depends on what you think “The Road Not Taken” is trying to say. If you believe the poem is meant to take position on will, agency, the nature of choice, and so forth—as the majority of readers have assumed—then it can seem unsatisfying (at best “a kind of joke,” as Schulz puts it). But if you think of the poem not as stating various viewpoints but rather as performing them, setting them beside and against one another, then a very different reading emerges. Here it’s helpful, as is so often the case, to call upon a nineteenth-century logician. In The Elements of Logic, Richard Whateley describes the fallacy of substitution like so:
Two distinct objects may, by being dexterously presented, again and again in quick succession, to the mind of a cursory reader, be so associated together in his thoughts, as to be conceived capable…of being actually combined in practice. The fallacious belief thus induced bears a striking resemblance to the optical illusion effected by that ingenious and philosophical toy called the Thaumatrope; in which two objects painted on opposite sides of a card, for instance a man, and a horse, a bird, and a cage, are, by a quick rotatory motion, made to impress the eye in combination, so as to form one’s picture, of the man on the horse’s back, the bird in the cage, etc.
What is fallacious in an argument can be mesmerizing in a poem. “The Road Not Taken” acts as a kind of thaumatrope, rotating its two opposed visions so that they seem at times to merge. And that merging is produced not by a careful blending of the two—a union—but by “rapid and frequent transition,” as Whateley puts it. The title itself is a small but potent engine that drives us first toward one untaken road and then immediately back to the other, producing a vision in which we appear somehow on both roads, or neither.
* * *
That sense of movement is critical to the manner in which the poem unfolds. We are continually being “reset” as we move through the stanzas, with the poem pivoting from one reading to the other so quickly that it’s easy to miss the transitions. This is true even of its first line. Here’s how the poem begins:
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…
The most significant word in the stanza—and perhaps the most overlooked yet essential word in the poem—is “roads.” Frost could, after all, have said “paths” or “trails” or “tracks” and conveyed nearly the same concept. Yet, as the scholar George Monteiro observes:
Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word “roads.”…In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood,” Frost reacted with such feeling—“Two roads!”—that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word “roads” and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, “he didn’t let me get away with ‘two paths!’”
What is gained by “roads”? Primarily two things. First, a road, unlike a path, is necessarily man-made. Dante may have found his life similarly changed “in a dark wood,” but Frost takes things a step further by placing his speaker in a setting that combines the natural world with civilization—yes, the traveler is alone in a forest, but whichever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people, one that will be taken, in turn, by still other people long after he has passed. The act of choosing may be solitary, but the context in which it occurs is not. Second, as Wendell Berry puts it, a path differs from a road in that it “obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.” A road is an assertion of will, not an accommodation. So the speaker’s decision, when it comes, whatever it is, will be an act of will that can occur only within the bounds of another such act—a way of looking at the world that simultaneously undercuts and strengthens the idea of individual choice.
This doubled effect continues in the poem’s second and third lines, which summarize the dilemma around which “The Road Not Taken” is constructed: “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler…” Frost often likes to use repetition and its cousin, redundancy, to suggest the complex contours of seemingly simple concepts. In this case, we have what seems like the most straightforward preposition imaginable: If a road forks, a single person can’t “travel both” branches. But the concept is oddly extended to include the observation that one can’t “travel both’ and “be one traveler,” which seems superfluous. After all, Frost might more easily and obviously have written the stanza like so (emphasis mine):
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
To where they ended, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
What, then, is the difference between saying one can’t “travel both” roads and saying one can’t “travel both / And be one traveler”? And why does Frost think that difference worth preserving? One way to address these questions is to think about what the speaker is actually suggesting he’s “sorry’ about. He isn’t, for instance, sorry that he won’t see what’s at the end of each road. (If he were, it would make more sense to use the modified version above.) Rather, he’s sorry he lacks the capability to see what’s at the end of each road—he’s objecting not to the outcome of the principle that you can’t be two places at once, but to the principle itself. He’s resisting the idea of a universe in which his selfhood is limited, in part by being subject to choices. (Compare the case of a person who regrets that he can’t travel through time not because he wishes he could, say, attend the premiere of Hamlet, but simply because he wants to experience time travel.)
This assumes, of course, that the speaker regrets that he can’t travel both roads simultaneously. But what if he instead means that it would be impossible to “travel both / And be one traveler” even if he returned later to take the second road? As Robert Faggen puts it, the suggestion here is that “experience alters the traveler”: The act of choosing changes the person making the choice. This point will be quietly reinforced two stanzas later, when the speaker says that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”—the doubt not only that he might return again to the same physical spot, but that he could return to the crossroads as the same person, the same “I,” who left it. This reading of the poem is subtly different from, and bolder than, the idea that existence is merely subject to the need to make decisions. If we can’t persist unchanged through any one choice, then every choice becomes a matter of existential significance—after all, we aren’t merely deciding to go left or right; we’re transforming our very selves. At the same time, however, if each choice changes the self, then at some point the “self” in question becomes nothing more than series of accumulated actions, many of them extremely minor. Frost’s peculiar addition—“and be one traveler”—consequently both elevates and reduces the idea of the chooser while at the same time both elevating and reducing the choice. The thaumatrope spins, the roads blur and merge.
From THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2015 by David Orr.