While I’ve never conducted formal research on the question, it has always seemed to me that America’s favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (AmericanPoems.com says it’s number three, and frankly, I’d like a look at their methodology. “i carry your heart with me” and “Messy Room” at one and two? Seriously?)
Even people who neither know nor care a whit about poetry are familiar with the work, at least in passing, and I’m sometimes surprised to find them smiling as they think of it. Why, I wonder. Why do they know this one and why do they like it, even when they detest poetry in general, explaining that they “never understood it”? Why do people who’d be hard pressed to name another poem or poet feel so affectionately about this one?
The first question – how do they know – is obvious enough, I suppose: they had to take English and high school English teachers assign it as a matter of routine. I imagine they do so because it’s short, the language direct and simple, and history has taught them that students will endure it with less squirming than they will “The Waste Land.” It’s pretty, drawing on images of America’s rustic beauty. And best of all, it has a message that you can sell to idealistic teenagers who love the ideology of America. “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The road less traveled is a mantra for our rugged individualism, for the rewards of going one’s own way and shunning the collective honogeneity of the crowd. It’s a compelling hook for kids who want to be special, who want to be different. Who haven’t spent much time reflecting on the fact that they dress exactly like all their friends. The ones who are unique, just like everyone else.
If they sold poems at The Gap, “The Road Not Taken” would undoubtedly be the top grosser.
I’m happy when people know and love poetry. Even if they only know and love one little poem, that’s better than nothing. If it has a message that somehow pushes them, even a little bit, to pursue whatever novel genius lies dormant in their souls, that’s all the better.
The maddening part, though, is that not only is “The Road Not Taken” our most beloved poem, it’s also our most uniformly misunderstood poem. Put simply, it does not say what everyone thinks it does. It comes closer to saying the exact opposite, in fact.
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;
So far, so good. Frost establishes a scene and a context, one that many readers would immediately recognize. Walking in the woods. Which way should I go?
Then took the other, as just as fair,
Here’s where the elementary reader begins to ignore the parts that don’t mesh with the expectation. Note: both roads are equally pretty.
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,
Reiterating – there is no difference in the roads.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Yep – identical. Granted, both roads seem infused with pastoral loveliness. It’s not like you can go wrong either way.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Here, of course, is the real nut of the poem. The author has not just one, but two beautiful avenues to explore. And yet, since he knows how the world works, he realizes he’ll probably never return to take the other path. A reflection on the increasing mechanization of American life, drawing the soul away from beauty and into soulless routine? Perhaps – certainly this is a question for any reader of literature steeped in the American Romantic tradition to consider. But let’s continue.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
With a sigh, huh? I think most students are allowed to hear that as a wistful, elegiac sigh instead of a resigned, discontented one. Not “[sigh] it was so beautiful,” but “[sigh] why did I let the workaday world distract me from nature’s harmony?”
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve been ignoring what Frost has been explicitly saying throughout, then it’s easy enough to read these lines as an entreaty to avoid the beaten path. It’s only by stepping off the path and diving deeper into the weeds that the world’s mysteries are revealed.
But we haven’t been ignored the poet’s words here. We’ve been attending them closely. And at this point, I ask a simple question: what line in the poem would you point to as evidence that taking the road less traveled has made all the difference? Or any difference whatsoever? Someone please point to the difference.
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Right. I’m occasionally tempted to read Frost’s masterpiece (and in truth, I do think it’s a wonderful poem) as a cynical, ironic attack on those prone to uncritical flights of Romantic, ideological fancy. It’s certainly the sort of thing I know I’d do on those days when I find myself overrun by people who contort the realities, the bald facts of their daily lives, so that they can be crammed into an uncritical prefabricated dogma, be it political, social, economic or religious. They believe, on faith, that America is the greatest country on earth, and all data to the contrary, ugly, spirit-crushing data that stares them in the face from the time they wake until the time they go to bed, must be made to conform to the flag-waving Lee Greenwood soundtrack of their runaway consumerist culture.
Frost’s forebears, people like Wordsworth and Hawthorne and Enerson and Thoreau, had been writing about the encroachments of industrialism on American life for some time. We don’t hear the wood-splitting scream of a steam engine on this particular stroll, but it’s there, maybe a second before the poem begins or a second after it concludes. In this light, perhaps I’m justified in taking Frost as bitingly, deceptively cynical. The concrete byways we travel today are certainly the paved-over idyllic roads in his poem, and my anger at what we have become is unquestionably a direct descendant of whatever unease he felt standing at the fork that yellow morning.
Perhaps all those teenagers in all those English classes, unfamiliar with the harshness and nuance of the world, can be forgiven. We all start ignorant, don’t we? If we stay ignorant, though, then we have to turn our eyes on the educational systems that, for whatever reason, allowed us to remain that way (and the larger political system that legislated it). I suppose there’s an argument to be made, by someone out there, that it is the job of a nation’s institutions to transmit its beliefs, ideologies and values.
Then there’s the counter-argument, that a society is best served by a citizenry trained to think critically. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is better, but before you do, I’d encourage you to spend several hours immersed in election coverage.
Forgive me my cynicism, but Frost’s poem is perfect. We’re a culture that thinks there are two roads before us and that the choice matters…..