Parody Poem Of The Road Not Taken Essay

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, Frost sent an envelope to Edward Thomas that contained only one item: a draft of “The Road Not Taken,” under the title “Two Roads.” According to 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 it 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: “Methinks 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, hypo­critical for the fun of the I don’t suppose I was ever sorry for any­ thing 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 anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them & advising them which 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 be­ comes 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 speaker 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 con­ gratulating 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 (over the 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 a 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 19th-­century logician. In The Elements of Logic, Richard Whately 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 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 blend­ ing of the two—a union—but by “rapid and frequent transi­tion,” as Whately 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 two “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 man­made. 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 con­ tours; 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 proposi­tion 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 this to the case of a person who regrets that he can’t travel through time not be­ cause 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 “know­ ing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”—the doubt is 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 a 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.

* * * *

This is only the first stanza of “The Road Not Taken,” and already its lines seem papered over with potential interpretations, some more plausible than others, but none of which can be discarded. One can see why Thomas said he found the poem “staggering.” But then Frost takes things a step fur­ther. Having sketched the speaker and his potential choice in all their entangled ambiguity, he undermines the idea that there is really a choice to be made at all:

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.

The speaker wants to see the paths as different (one has “per­haps the better claim”) but admits that the distinctions, if they even exist, are minute (“the passing there / Had worn them really about the same”). The sameness of the roads will later be revised in the story the speaker says he’ll be telling “ages and ages hence”—as he famously observes, he’ll claim to have taken “the one less traveled by.”

Two things are worth pausing over in these stanzas. First, why is the physical appearance of the roads mentioned in the first place? We typically worry more about where roads go than what they look like. (Here again it’s worth contrasting “road” with “path” or “trail,” neither of which implies a des­tination as strongly as “road.”) So if all Frost intended was to parody a kind of romantic longing for missed opportunities, wouldn’t it be more effective to imply that the roads reached the same location? As in:

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And making perhaps the better case,
Because it seemed to lead elsewhere,

Though at day’s end each traveler there
Would finish in the selfsame place.

Second, if you’re determined to make the appearance of the roads the central issue, why make that appearance solely a function of how much travel each road had received? Why not  talk about how one road was sunnier or wider or stonier or steeper? “I took the one less traveled by” is often assumed to mean “I took the more difficult road,” but this isn’t neces­sarily true in either a literal or metaphorical sense. In scenic areas, after all, the less traveled paths are usually the least interesting and challenging (think of an emergency-­vehicle access road in a state park), and if we imagine “roads” as re­ferring to “life choices,” the array of decisions that are “less traveled” yet both easy and potentially harmful is nearly end­ less (drug abuse, tax evasion, and so on). So if the idea was to suggest that the speaker wants to perceive his chosen road as not just lonely, but demanding, why not make a more direct statement that would lead to a more direct conclusion, like:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one that dared me to try.

These lines are bad, admittedly, but not much worse at first glance than the poem’s actual concluding lines, which in­volve the addition of an apparently superfluous preposition—“by”—that is almost always omitted when the poem’s crowning statement is invoked. (There’s a reason M. Scott Peck’s bestseller is called The Road Less Traveled rather than The Road Less Traveled By.)

So what’s going on here? Again, it’s helpful to imagine “The Road Not Taken” as consisting of alternate glimpses of two unwritten poems, one the common misconception, the other the parody Frost sometimes claimed to have intended. Every time the poem threatens to clarify as one or the other, it resists, moving instead into an uncertain in-­between space in which both are faintly apparent, like overlapping ghosts. This is relatively easy to see with respect to the “naive” read­ing of “The Road Not Taken” as a hymn to stoic individual­ism. Had Frost wanted to write that poem, it would indeed have been titled “The Road Less Traveled,” and it might have gone something like this:

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;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And posing perhaps the greater test,
Because it was narrow and wanted wear,
Rising so steeply into thinning air
That a man would struggle just to rest,

While the other offered room to play
Or stand at ease along the track.
I took the lonelier road that day,
And 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:
Tworoads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one that dared me to try,
And that has made all the difference.

I make no claims for the elegance of this version, but it does have all the elements generally attributed to the actual “Road Not Taken”: an emphasis on solitary challenge, a tone of weary yet quietly confident resignation (what a skeptic would call self­ congratulation), and a plain choice between obviously different options. It would have been easy for Frost to write this poem.

Yet that’s not what he did. But neither did he write the parody that “The Road Not Taken” is widely considered to be among more sophisticated readers (or at least more care­ful readers). Frost had a barbed, nimble wit, and he would have had no trouble skewering romantic dithering more pointedly if that was all he had in mind. Such a poem might have been called “Two Roads” and gone like so:

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;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And making perhaps the better case,
Because it seemed to lead elsewhere,
Though at day’s end each traveler there
Would finish in the selfsame place,

For both, I learned, were arms that lay
Around the wood and met in one track.
And whichever one I took that day
Would  lead itself to the other way
And send me forward to take me back.

Still, I shall be claiming with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Tworoads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one on the left-hand side,
And that has made all the difference.

One of the essential elements of a parody is that it is recog­nized as such: A parody that is too obscure has failed its basic purpose. In “The Road Not Taken,” Frost passes up several opportunities to make his “joke” more explicit, most notably by failing to give the roads a shared destination rather than simply a similar condition of wear. (And even that similarity is qualified, because it depends on the speaker’s perception, not his actual knowledge—after all, having failed to take the first road, he can’t be sure how traveled it is or isn’t, beyond his immediate line of sight.) The usual interpretation of “The Road Not Taken” is almost certainly wrong, but the idea that the poem is a parody doesn’t seem exactly right, either.

* * * *

And this brings us to the final stanza—more particularly, it brings us to one of the most carefully placed words in this delicately balanced arrangement. That word is “sigh”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence . . .

Frost mentions the sigh several times in his remarks about “The Road Not Taken,” and while those comments are often oblique, it’s evident that he considered the word “sigh” es­sential to understanding the poem. It is “a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing,” he told Edward Thomas in 1915. It is “absolutely saving,” he told an audience at  the Bread Loaf Conference half a century later. According to Lawrance Thompson, he would sometimes claim during public readings that a young girl had asked him about the sigh, and that he considered this a very good question—an anecdote that (in Thompson’s view) was meant to encourage the audience to appreciate the poem’s intricacy.

But why would it? After all, a sigh fits both of the usual readings of the poem, and therefore doesn’t seem likely to make either of them more interesting. If we give the poem its popular, naive interpretation, then the sigh is one of tired yet self-­assured acceptance bordering on satisfaction: The speaker has taken the hard road, faced obstacles, lost things along the way, regrets, he’s had a few—and yet he’s ended up in a better, stronger place. It’s a sigh of hard­-won maturity or tedious faux humility, depending on how you look at it. By contrast, if we think of the poem as an ironic commentary on romantic self­-absorption, then the sigh signals straightfor­ward regret: The speaker is genuinely troubled by the consequences of every small choice he makes, and his preoccupation with his own decisions renders him slightly ridiculous.

But neither of these explanations for the sigh seems espe­cially obscure, let alone “absolutely saving.” Perhaps that’s because both of them glide past a key point: The sigh hasn’t yet occurred. Recall the final stanza:

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 speaker isn’t “telling this with a sigh” now; he’s say­ ing that he’ll be sighing “ages and ages hence.” He knows himself well enough—or thinks he does—to predict how he’ll feel about the consequences of his choice in the future. But if he actually knows himself this well, then it’s reason­ able to ask whether he would, in fact, behave in the way he’s suggesting. Which is to say that the speaker isn’t necessarily the kind of person who sighs while explaining that many years ago he took the less traveled road; rather, he’s the kind of person who thinks he would sigh while telling us this story. He’s assuming that he’ll do something that will strike others as either self­-congratulatory or paralyzingly anxious.

It’s a small difference, but as with so many small differ­ences in “The Road Not Taken,” it matters a great deal. Be­cause it allows us to feel affectionate compassion toward the speaker, whom it’s now possible to view less as a boaster or a neurotic than as a person who is perhaps excessively critical of his own perceived failings. This feature of the poem goes strangely unremarked in most commentary, and even when it’s noted, it tends to be folded into one of the two standard interpretations. Writing in The New Yorker, for instance, the critic Dan Chiasson declares that the sigh represents “a later version of the self that this current version, though moving steadily in its direction, finds pitiable,” and he declares the poem to be a “cunning nugget of nihilism.” But one’s self­ image is only rarely accurate in the moment, let alone as a predictor of future behavior, and the poem itself provides no reason to conclude the speaker is “moving steadily” toward anything. We’re no more bound to take his view of himself at face value than we are to believe Emma Bovary or Willy Loman.

It’s important to remember that while “The Road Not Taken” isn’t strictly “about” Edward Thomas, it was, at least, strongly associated with Thomas by Frost. And as the scholar Katherine Kearns rightly notes, Frost “by all accounts was genuinely fond of Thomas.” Indeed, “Frost’s protean ability to assume dramatic masks never elsewhere included such a friend as Thomas, whom he loved and admired, tellingly, more than ‘anyone in England or anywhere else in the world.’” If you admire someone more than anyone “any­ where else in the world,” you probably aren’t going to link that person with a poem whose speaker comes off as either obnoxious or enfeebled. But you might well connect him with an exquisitely sensitive and self-­aware speaker who thinks of himself—probably incorrectly—as fundamentally weak, and likely to behave in ways that will cause others to lose patience. “But you know already how I waver,” Thomas wrote to Frost in early 1914, and “on what wavering things I de­pend.” This is the figure who emerges between the two more common interpretations of “The Road Not Taken,” and his doubting yet ardent sensibility is the secret warmth of the poem. This is what is, or can be, “absolutely saving.”

* * * *

Poetry has always oscillated between guardedness and fervor. The effusions of Dylan Thomas give way to the iro­nies of Philip Larkin; the reticence of Elizabeth Bishop yields to the frenzy of Sylvia Plath; the closed becomes open; the hot grows cold. In this system of binaries, Frost has gen­erally been regarded as not merely guarded, but practically encircled by battlements. In part this is a matter of tempera­ment: His refusal to commit to positions can seem princi­pled, in a roundabout way, but also evasive in a manner that Pound’s Cantos, for all their difficulty, are not. There is a sense that, like Thomas Hardy, Frost sometimes saw himself as more allied with the impersonal forces often depicted in his poems than with the human characters those forces so frequently overwhelm. He isn’t warm. He doesn’t tell us what he’s thinking. His poetry doesn’t advertise its ambitions. “He presents,” declares the introductory note on Frost in the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, “an example of reserve or holding back in genre, diction, theme, and even philosophy, which is impressive but also, as seen after his death by a generation bent on extravagance, cautious.”

“Cautious”: not a word Frost would have liked. In his per­sonal life, he was anything but, as is demonstrated by his nearly monomaniacal courtship of his wife, to say nothing of his decision to move to England at age 38 on the basis of a coin toss. (He was much bolder in this regard than almost all of his modernist peers.) And the word seems equally inapplicable to his strongest writing, which is audacious in its willingness to engage multiple audiences (and be judged by them), as well as in its determination to dis­play its technical wizardry in a way that was certain to be initially underestimated. It takes tremendous nerve to be willing to look as if you don’t know what you’re doing, when in fact you’re a master of the activity in question. Even in 1915, for example, it was far from “cautious” for an ambi­tious poet to open his first book by deliberately rhyming “trees” with “breeze,” a pairing so legendarily banal that it had been famously singled out for derision by Alexander Pope 200 years earlier. True, Frost became tremen­dously successful by writing in the way he did, but success in a tricky venture doesn’t make the venture itself any less risky.

Yet if the word “cautious” is wrong, it’s interestingly wrong. “The Road Not Taken” seems to be about the diffi­culty of decision making but is itself strangely reluctant to resolve. It keeps us in the woods, at the crossroads, unsure whether the speaker is actually even making a choice, and then ends not with the decision itself but with a claim about the future that seems unreliable. There is, in this sense, no road that “The Road Not Taken” fails to take. Is that desire to cover all possibilities “cautious”? Here it’s useful to turn to another poem from Frost’s early career, “Reluctance.” That poem ends:

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
Toyield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

The conclusion of the poem is a protest against conclusions—an argument, you might say, for delay. But it’s not an argument for caution, even though caution and delay are intertwined. After all, a stubborn sensibility also delays. A playful sensibility delays. An arrogant sensibility de­lays, because it won’t be rushed. And while Frost can claim the greatest self­-penned epitaph in the history of English­ language poetry—I HAD A LOVER’S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD—it would have been no less accurate for his stone to have  read  STUBBORN, PLAYFUL, AND ARROGANT. Or even HE NEVER HURRIED. “The Road Not Taken” isn’t a poem that radiates this sort of confidence, obviously. But there is an overlap between its hesitations and evasions and the extent to which Frost, as a poet, simply doesn’t like to leave the page. Here is Frost from an interview with The Paris Review in 1960, talking about the act of writing:

The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.

Poetry is frequently (endlessly, tediously) compared to mu­sic, but only rarely does one see it compared to ice hockey. Yet here is Frost—“You’ve got to score”—doing exactly that. This is of a piece with his famous quip that writing free verse is “like playing tennis without a net,” a bon mot that is probably more interesting for its underlying metaphor (poets, those sedentary creatures, are like sportsmen) than for its actual claim. There is a sinewy, keyed-­up athleti­cism to Frost’s writing and, like all great athletes, he’s reluc­tant to leave the field, which is, after all, the place he’s most fully himself. Consider the end of his great love poem “To Earthward”:

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

Yes, these stanzas are about the hunger for sensation. But they’re also about delay: Frost wants to feel the friction of love through the “length” of his body, but also to the “length” of his days, and through the “length” of the poem. Not just more touch, but more time.

And here is where Robert Frost and Edward Thomas (or Frost’s idea of Thomas) are perhaps not so different. “The Road Not Taken” gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? How can one ever arrive anywhere if one is constantly reaching for something purer (“the one less traveled by”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possi­ble. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are fore­ closed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.” So the romantic embraces delay (“long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could”) because it postpones the inevitable loss. He hesitates like a candle flame wavers: hot but fragile, already wrapped in the smoke that will signal its extinction.

Both Frost and the speaker of “The Road Not Taken,” then, are attracted to the idea of prolonging the moment of decision making (achieving a “momentary stay against con­ fusion,” as Frost would put it in a different context). The difference between them is one of attitude and degree. The speaker—and, by extension, Frost’s conception of Thomas—is afraid of what he’ll lose when the process of choosing ends, so he pauses over nearly any choice. Frost is afraid of losing the process itself, so he pauses over a decision that might re­sult in genuine resolution—that might result, for instance, in a poem that is conclusive and immobile. He wants the ball to pass through the hoop, only to return to his hands, because for Frost the process—the continuation, the endless creation of endless roads—is everything. “No one,” he writes, “can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place.” You don’t just have to score; you have to keep scoring.

* * * *

But no game can continue forever. Frost’s fascination with delay allows him to understand the romantic sensibility, to sympathize with its fear of closure, even if its preoccupa­tions aren’t his own. And this understanding lets him create his own version of romantic yearning. This being Frost, of course, that yearning has very little in it of the “sigh” from “The Road Not Taken,” or the overt regret that animates it. But it has a road, and the consequences of that road. Here is the beginning of “Directive,” from 1946, which is usually considered to be Frost’s last great poem:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry . . .

The poem proceeds through a series of possible self­ deceptions that recall the potential self­-deceptions of “The Road Not Taken”:

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot . .  .

These in turn give way to a scene of homecoming that hovers somewhere between parody and pathos:

Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

And the poem famously concludes with a cross between a baptism and the Grail quest:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

As many critics have noted, “Directive” contains elements from dozens of Frost’s earlier poems and critical pronouncements. But it’s rarely connected with “The Road Not Taken”; indeed, the two are more likely to be contrasted than linked. Writing in Slate, for example, Robert Pinsky asserts that “works like ‘The Road Not Taken’ do not unsettle or revise any 19th-­century notions of form or idea,” whereas “Frost’s greatest poems, such as ‘Directive’ and ‘The Most of It,’ do radically challenge and reimagine old conceptions of mem­ory, culture, and ways of beholding nature.”

It’s easy to see why some readers think this way. “Direc­tive” looks and feels both contemporary and significant. It shifts from one scene to another with little warning, it uses a motley palette of tones rather than one dominant, reliable voice, it’s simultaneously rhetorical and punning (“no play­ house but a house in earnest”), and it drops  numerous hints that it should be categorized as a Major Work. When David Lehman, the editor of the Best American Poetry series, asked his guest editors—all eminent contemporary poets— to name the greatest American poems of the century, “Direc­tive” was one of three Frost poems to receive multiple votes. “The Road Not Taken” didn’t make the list, although it was named America’s favorite poem by the thousands of readers who participated in Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project. This is to be expected. “Directive” has become the poem that dedicated readers—the same readers who consider “The Road Not Taken” a minor, dark joke—most admire. “This is the poem,” Frost told an early biographer, “that converted the other group [the followers of T. S. Eliot]. There I rest my case.” It makes sense, then, that “Directive” continues to impress Eliot’s heirs. Reading it, you feel that if John Ashbery were to write a Robert Frost poem, this is what it would sound like.

And yet there is good reason to connect the much cele­brated “Directive” with the frequently derided “The Road Not Taken.” “Directive” is the poem in which Frost makes his way back to the crossroads—but as an approximation of himself, not as a version of Edward Thomas. It’s a poem about the aftermath of choice: It is Frost’s version of the “sigh.” In exploring the domestic tragedies that are often considered to be sources for the poem’s central images, Mark Richardson argues, “it is not going too far to say that in ‘Di­rective’ Frost returns to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and that he has come here to ask, in light of the patently ‘liturgical’ qualities of the poem, to be shriven.” Richardson then quotes Reuben Brower, one of Frost’s old students, who claims “Directive” is a return “to the beginning of his life and his poetry, but it is a return after having taken one road rather than another”—an echo from “The Road Not Taken” that is revealing even if unintentional.

Both poems rely on the image of an unreliable road that is imperfectly understood by its traveler. “Directive” con­tains a guide, true, but that guide “only has at heart your getting lost” and may be understood not just as the poet lead­ing the reader, but as a past version of the same traveler guid­ ing the current version. (Read this way, in the line “Back out of all this now too much for us,” the “us” becomes a variant of the royal “we.”) But the most important overlap between the two poems occurs in the hypnotic concluding lines of “Directive.” The guide tells us that he has hidden “a broken drinking goblet like the Grail” so that “the wrong ones can’t find it, / So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.” Frost is referring to Mark 4:11–12, in which Jesus explains why he speaks in parables:

And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hear­ing they may hear, and not understand; lest at anytime they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

For Frost, these lines were equally applicable to poetry, which some people would simply never understand, and which even good readers needed to approach in the right way. A poem, then, becomes a way to separate an audience into factions.

The same idea emerges in two ways in “The Road Not Taken.” First, as discussed earlier, the speaker focuses solely on the amount of travel each road received (rather than on the roads’ relative steepness or narrowness and so forth), which means his selection between them involves separating himself from other people. The road isn’t just a choice; it’s a choice premised on exclusion. Second, that choice is mir­rored in the larger subterfuges of the poem itself, in the way it encourages interpretations, only to undercut them, sepa­rating readers into those who thought they understood, oth­ers who thought those readers didn’t understand, and so on in a nearly endless cycle. As Frost wrote to Louis Unter­meyer, “I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken.”

* * * *

But as we’ve seen, “who was hit and where he was hit” is nearly impossible to determine. This is because “The Road Not Taken” isn’t a joke but a poem. A joke (or trick) has a right answer, but a poem only has answers that are better or worse—a point that is relevant to the most important con­nection between “Directive” and “The Road Not Taken.” Recall the beginning of the latter poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler . . .

And recall the conclusion of “Directive”:

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

The poem’s final line is an overt reference to Frost’s well­ known description of a successful poem’s ending as “a momentary stay against confusion.” But why the word “whole”? And why “again”? The suggestion appears to be that the “you” of the poem, though previously one entity, has some­ how become divided.

Divided, we might say, by the road taken. Divided when the process of choosing gives way to the fact of choice.

 

FromTHE ROAD NOT TAKEN: FINDING AMERICA IN THE POEM EVERYONE LOVES AND ALMOST EVERYONE GETS WRONG. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2015 by David Orr.

“The Road Not Taken” is an excellent example of what Frost meant by “the pleasure of ulteriority” in his poetry. That is, the poem offers an entertaining double perspective on the theme of making choices, with one perspective fairly obvious and the other more subtle.

Considered through the perspective of the speaker himself, “The Road Not Taken” is an entirely serious, even a sad poem. It expresses both the turmoil of making a choice and the depressing expectation that the choice he makes between seemingly equal options will turn out for the worse—is in fact going to make an even greater difference for the worse than seems possible when he makes the choice.

Considered from Frost’s perspective, on the other hand, “The Road Not Taken” is a humorous parody of the speaker’s portentous habits of mind. Frost’s 1931 essay “Education by Poetry” offers further clarification on this point. In it, he wrote that people need to understand that all metaphors are human constructs that “break down at some point”; people need to “know [a] metaphor in its strength and its weakness[h]ow far [one] may expect to ride it and when it may break down.” From this perspective, the main problem of the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” is that he tries to ride his metaphor too far and too hard. Although he sees it break down early in the poem (in that he actually cannot see any real difference between the two roads), the speaker persists in thinking that the road is “less traveled” in some way that he cannot see and that this difference will lead to dire consequences later on.

One other common interpretation of the poem deserves brief consideration: the view that the poem is a celebration of nonconformity, an exhortation to the reader to take the road “less traveled.” In this interpretation, the title is seen as referring to the road that the speaker does take (which is “the road not taken” by most other people), and the speaker is seen as ultimately exultant that he took the road “less traveled,” because it “has made all the difference” in enhancing his life. To consider the validity of this interpretation, one must put aside Frost’s stated intentions for the poem—an act that many critics consider sometimes justified because an author’s intentions cannot be seen as fully controlling the impression made by a literary work. Aside from the issue of Frost’s intentions, however, this interpretation still conflicts with many salient details in the poem. One problem with this view is that the speaker can hardly be praised as a strong nonconformist if in the middle of the poem he can see little difference between the paths, let alone vigorously choose the road “less traveled.” Another problem is that he imagines telling his story in the future with a “sigh,” an unlikely gesture for a vigorous champion of nonconformity.

In 1935, Frost wrote on the subject of style that “style is the way [a] man takes himself.If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” “The Road Not Taken” is a notable example of Frost’s own sophisticated style, of his ability to create ironic interplay between outer seriousness and inner humor.

Yet the humor of the poem also has its own serious side. This humor conveys more than merely the ridicule found in parody: It also expresses an implied corrective to the condition that it mocks. This condition is that the speaker sees the course and tone of his life as determined by forces beyond his range of vision and control. Frost implies that if the speaker were able to see himself with some humor, and if he were able to take more responsibility for his choices and attitude, he might find that he himself could make “all the difference” in his own life.

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