19 January 2008

I shall be telling this with a sigh

It started with Shelley at Retrospectacle. Evolving Thoughts' John Wilkins followed, and Kevin Z. of The Other 95% and Mike Haubrich of Tangled Up In Blue Guy solidified its memehood. And now I'm joining the fun.

It's quite the simple meme: share a poem that means something to you.

I've long been a fan of Robert Frost. Of all his work, this poem is particularly dear to me, because it is (in my opinion) one of the world's most misunderstood poems. Feel free to disagree with me, of course, but I stand firmly by my interpretation.
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

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 last stanza, especially the last three lines, are quoted regularly and have earned a place in our cultural lexicon. When you pay attention only to these lines, the poem becomes a celebration of individuality: you will find fulfillment by straying from the beaten path. As inspiring as that sentiment may be, however, it doesn't reflect the poem when considered in its entirety.

Though he'd prefer the less traveled road if given the option, the narrator states quite plainly that the the two paths before him are "worn... really about the same." The best he can do is pick one at random and hope for the best, because he knows that he won't return to try the other. Once his choice is made, he suddenly takes us "ages" into the future, where he imagines himself saying he made the right choice in choosing the less traveled road after all.

Why does Frost tell us the roads are equal, then say he took the one less traveled? One might think that perhaps the traveler was able to discern a difference between the roads after all, or that he simply got lucky in making the right choice. But both these interpretations, I think, ignore the most crucial piece of evidence: the title of the poem.

If this were simply a poem about individuality, Frost easily could have entitled it "The Road Less Traveled." But he didn't. Instead, the one thought looming literally over the whole poem is The Road Not Taken.

This poem is the tale of a man who wants to be an individual, a man who comes to a crossroads and must make a commitment. Yet once his decision is made, no matter how hard he tries to justify to himself that he made the right decision, there's still always the doubt hanging over his head, the regret that he'll never know what might have been.

And here am I, trying to find a career for myself.

1 comment:

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Well, you could always be a literature instructor. I hadn't understood the poem in that context before.

I had considered a poem by Frost, too. You know, the one about good fences and neighbors. But then, I realized I want to be a uniter, not a divider.