If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the outdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrator contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem’s 20 lines, the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decisions make all the difference’.
In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School, challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.
Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrence Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”
Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr, “The Road Not Taken” has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.
So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?
In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly but incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however, focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.
For example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths or trails. Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?
Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:
‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.
Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.
And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.
“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:
“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters most, the poem suggests is the dilemma of the crossroads.”
We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.
Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.
Howard E. Friedman
The Road Not Taken