Friday, January 18, 2013

Robert Frost mug

[Only $15.95. Good grief.]

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has the distinction of being celebrated by large numbers of people who have no idea what it’s saying. Why does an elementary school have its students sign and sing the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” at a spring concert? Cluelessness. Why do people want Frost’s poem on a mug or poster or plaque? See answer to previous question.

Reading “The Road Not Taken” with even modest attention reveals the poem to be more complicated and compelling than any platitude about going one’s own way and never looking back:

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.
Beginning with its title, the poem is about nothing but looking back: its speaker even begins to rehearse his story once again in the final stanza before breaking off to offer the evidence-defying declaration that he “took the one less traveled by.” Look back at what he’s told us: the two roads looked equally appealing; one looked grassier than the other; they looked equally worn; that morning they were both covered in leaves than no one had walked on. Where there is no difference, there is no basis for a meaningful choice. And the difference a choice makes cannot be gauged when one has no idea of where an alternative may have led. If “way leads on to way,” the two roads might even meet again in the future: and who would know?

What the poem shows us is a traveler who would have preferred not to have to choose, who retells his story (like the Ancient Mariner), who travels to an unknown end (“somewhere ages and ages hence”), and who is determined to impose meaning on one moment of experience. If the speaker will be retelling his story with a “sigh,” it’s far from clear that the difference he claims for his choice — if there was a choice, if there is a difference — is for the better. But in Frost’s universe, any meaning is better than none. Or as another Frost poem puts it:
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
And speaking of things boughten, you can also buy the poem’s first stanza as a poster ending with a semicolon. Good grief.

[Elaine and I heard “Y.M.C.A.” sung by elementary-school kids some years ago. Not wanting to embarrass anyone, we kept our mouths shut.]

comments: 5

Anonymous said...

I’ll never forget the college class I had as an undergrad wherein we discussed this poem and my professor casually mentioned that he read the last line of the poem as rueful, i.e., Frost’s traveler regrets taking the wrong road.

zzi said...

Now I recall how I found your site. There was an image of a mug with the pantone orange patch.

Michael Leddy said...

This is probably the perfect poem for getting students to read beyond the messages or morals they’ve been encouraged to expect from poems.

Yes, I saw that mug in the Indianapolis Museum of Art and had to buy it.

Stefan Hagemann said...

If I remember correctly, Frost referred to this as one of his "tricky" poems, but I guess most people miss the trick, and so the poem is a staple at commencement speeches and other events that seem to call for wisdom. It is a wise poem, just not in the way casual readers might think. I like to connect it with the Heraclitus aphorism about how no human can step in the same river twice. Every choice precludes infinite other choices, as even the rhyme scheme and five-line stanzas hints. Those choices mean it can't be a sonnet or a sestina now. No wonder the speaker sighs.

Michael Leddy said...

I like that thought about form and disappearing choices. I suspect that if anyone had pressed Frost about the poem being tricky, he would have said that he was just joking. Magicians don’t like being found out.