A man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply. Edward Thomas
No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another. Robert Frost
I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken. Robert Frost
I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on. Edward Thomas
The strongly sententious yet ironic last stanza in effect predicts the happy American construction which « The Road not taken » has been traditionally understood to endorse – predicts, in other words what the poem will be sentimentally made into, but from a place in the poem that its Atlantic Monthly reading, as it were, will never touch. Frank Letricchia
Noble, charismatic, wise: in the years since its composition, « The Road Not Taken » has been understood by some as an emblem of individual choice and self-reliance, a moral tale in which the traveller takes responsibility for – and so effects – his own destiny. But it was never intended to be read in this way by Frost, who was well aware of the playful ironies contained within it, and would warn audiences: « You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky. » Frost knew that reading the poem as a straight morality tale ought to pose a number of difficulties. For one: how can we evaluate the outcome of the road not taken? For another: had the poet chosen the road more travelled by then that, logically, could also have made all the difference. And in case the subtlety was missed, Frost set traps in the poem intended to explode a more earnest reading. The two paths, he wrote, had been worn « really about the same », and « equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black », showing the reader that neither road was more or less travelled, and that choices may in some sense be equal. But the poem carried a more personal message. Many were the walks when Thomas would guide Frost on the promise of rare wild flowers or birds’ eggs, only to end in self-reproach when the path he chose revealed no such wonders. Amused at Thomas’s inability to satisfy himself, Frost chided him, « No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another. » To Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of his own fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness the most astutely – in particular, towards the war – appeared to be mocking him for it. (…) None of this was Thomas. « It isn’t in me, » he pleaded. Frost insisted that Thomas was overreacting, and told his friend that he had failed to see that « the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing ». But Thomas saw no such fun, and said so bluntly, adding that he doubted anyone would see the fun of the thing without Frost to guide them personally. Frost, in fact, had already discovered as much on reading the poem before a college audience, where it was « taken pretty seriously », he admitted, despite « doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling . . . Mea culpa. » « The Road Not Taken » did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. Matthew Hollis
You can see why this has become an anthologists’ favourite, beloved by earnest Eng. Lit. students and life coaches. What an inspiring message about the importance of individual choice, of having the courage to split off from the herd and follow your heart along the lonely road of personal integrity. It may require sacrifice, forsaking the pleasures that await on the more trodden path, but never fear: the spiritual rewards will make all the difference. Indeed, ‘the road less travelled’ has become a kind of shorthand for a life of enlightenment and spiritual questing. It’s the title of one of the most successful self-help books ever published. Just one problem: that’s not what Frost meant at all. Although, somehow, most readers manage not to notice, he quietly stresses that both paths in the poem are ‘worn about the same’ and ‘equally’ covered in fresh, untrodden leaves. In truth, one is no less travelled than the other – that’s just a fanciful assertion with no evidence to back it up. It is, in Frost’s own words, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’. The real message, bleak and cynical, seems to be that our choices in life, however much we dither over them, are often essentially acts of caprice. As for their outcome, who knows? Take the other road, Frost seems to be hinting, and that would make all the difference, too. Either way, it’s not worth sighing over. Few poems can have been more wildly misread. But there was one man in particular who failed to ‘get’ it, with personally devastating consequences. And that was the man for whom it was written: Edward Thomas. Paul Carter
Titre perversement ambivalent, revendications de non-conformité contredites par la réalité, distance ironique entre la fausse simplicité des mots et la creuse grandiloquence de la conclusion …
Attention: lire de la littérature peut être risqué pour votre santé!
Suite à notre dernier billet concernant les effets, sur nos vies amoureuses, de l’hyperchoix des sites de rencontres …
Retour sur l’un des poèmes américains les plus populaires et les plus mal compris …
Où l’on découvre derrière le joyeux hymne à l’individualisme et à la non-conformité qu’y ont vu tant de générations d’élèves et d’étudiants américains …
Non seulement une satire nettement plus sombre de la propensité humaine à rationaliser a posteriori nos caprices en choix prétendument délibérés …
Mais, à l’origine, une plaisanterie qui se révélera des plus cruelles et même fatale pour l’un des amis anglais de l’auteur, le critique et poète Edward Thomas qui avait tant contribué au succès de l’Américain en Angleterre …
Pour qui non pas tant la moquerie sur sa notoire indécision mais la remise en cause de sa virilité par l’ami qu’il avait décidé de suivre aux Etats-Unis finira par le conduire au choix fatidique des tranchées de la Somme …
NOW ALL ROADS LEAD TO FRANCE: THE LAST YEARS OF EDWARD THOMAS BY MATTHEW HOLLIS (Faber & Faber £20)
The Daily Mail
18 August 2011
This is the story of how one of England’s finest poets died at the peak of his powers because he couldn’t take a joke – a joke that has since touched the lives of millions who completely misinterpret it and don’t even realise it was meant to be funny.
The joke in question is Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, 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 yellow wood, and I —
I took the road less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
You can see why this has become an anthologists’ favourite, beloved by earnest Eng. Lit. students and life coaches. What an inspiring message about the importance of individual choice, of having the courage to split off from the herd and follow your heart along the lonely road of personal integrity.
It may require sacrifice, forsaking the pleasures that await on the more trodden path, but never fear: the spiritual rewards will make all the difference.
Indeed, ‘the road less travelled’ has become a kind of shorthand for a life of enlightenment and spiritual questing. It’s the title of one of the most successful self-help books ever published.
Just one problem: that’s not what Frost meant at all. Although, somehow, most readers manage not to notice, he quietly stresses that both paths in the poem are ‘worn about the same’ and ‘equally’ covered in fresh, untrodden leaves. In truth, one is no less travelled than the other – that’s just a fanciful assertion with no evidence to back it up.
It is, in Frost’s own words, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’. The real message, bleak and cynical, seems to be that our choices in life, however much we dither over them, are often essentially acts of caprice.
As for their outcome, who knows? Take the other road, Frost seems to be hinting, and that would make all the difference, too. Either way, it’s not worth sighing over.
Few poems can have been more wildly misread. But there was one man in particular who failed to ‘get’ it, with personally devastating consequences. And that was the man for whom it was written: Edward Thomas.
Thomas was working as a hack writer and literary critic when he met Frost, a failed poultry farmer who had moved from America to Britain in 1912, supposedly on the toss of a coin, in the hope of making his fortune as a poet.
Unfulfilled, seething with self-hatred, convinced he was a failure in both his career and his marriage, Thomas was prey to fits of black depression and flirted with suicide, charging off into the woods with a revolver or carrying around a bottle of poison that he called ‘the saviour in my pocket’.
But though his raging discontent made him sour, self-pitying and monstrously cruel to his wife – ‘Your sympathy and your love are both hateful to me. Hate me, but for God’s sake don’t stand there, pale and suffering’ – he was, when in full command of himself, a gentle and sweet-hearted man.
As a critic, he was Frost’s first champion. The pair became friends, and it was Frost, seeing hints of genius beneath the tired, strained prose of Thomas’s books on nature and the English countryside, who persuaded him to attempt poetry of his own.
A fountain of creativity was unleashed. Poem after poem poured from the pen of a man who had once flatly declared: ‘I couldn’t write a poem to save my life.’
Rapturous joy, black despair – Thomas took the turmoil of his inner life and turned it into some of the most subtle and compelling poetry of the 20th century. Miraculously, his depression began to lift.
And then Frost made his little joke.
As Matthew Hollis describes in his wonderful book, the two men used to discuss their ideas about poetry on long country walks. It tickled Frost that Thomas would often lead the way in search of some rare wild flowers or birds’ eggs, ‘only for the walk to conclude in self-reproach when the path Thomas chose bore no such wonders’.
‘No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another,’ Frost teased his friend. And he turned the tease into a poem.
Thomas was not amused. It was as if the one man who understood his savagely self-critical, self-doubting nature was mocking him for it, taunting him as a timid ditherer.
Ever since being criticised by his father for – as we would now call it – ‘choking’ during a school athletics race and throwing away certain victory, Thomas had been haunted by the fear that he was a coward.
During one of his walks with Frost, the pair had been confronted by a gamekeeper with a gun; Frost angrily defied him, but Thomas weedily retreated, and was stricken with guilt ever after. Now, he thought, his dearest friend was attacking his lack of moral fibre in print.
The ditherer’s response could hardly have been more decisive.
In the preceding weeks, he had been making plans to emigrate to America with Frost. They would write poetry together and support their families by working the land. Not now. Thomas would take another road.
On July 19, 1915, at the age of 37, and hiding the diabetes that would have led to his rejection, he enlisted as a private in the British Army. He wrote a series of haunting, deathstruck poems during his training and then went to fight in France.
Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. He had left his dugout for a moment to fill his pipe; a shell passed so close that the rush of air stopped his heart and he fell to the ground, not a mark on his body.
Two paths had diverged, he had made his choice, and England had lost a great soul and a great poet, who crammed his entire output of more than 140 poems into the last two-and-a-half years of his life.
Matthew Hollis tells this tale with a sigh — but also with dry wit, deep compassion and a poet’s eye for evocative detail.
When Thomas and Frost met in London in 1913, neither had yet made his name as a poet. They became close, and each was vital to the other’s success. But then Frost wrote ‘The Road Not Taken’, which was to drive Thomas off to war
Friday 29 July 2011
Edward Thomas and Robert Frost were sitting on an orchard stile near Little Iddens, Frost’s cottage in Gloucestershire, in 1914, when word arrived that Britain had declared war on Germany. The two men wondered idly whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of the county. They had no idea of the way in which this war would come between them. In six months, Frost would flee England for the safety of New Hampshire; he would take Thomas’s son with him in the expectation that the rest of the Thomas family would follow.
Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas
by Matthew Hollis
So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision, and could not readily choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France. War seemed such an unlikely outcome for him. He was an anti-nationalist, who despised the jingoism and racism that the press was stoking; he refused to hate Germans or grow « hot » with patriotic love for Englishmen, and once said that his real countrymen were the birds. But this friendship – the most important of either man’s life – would falter at a key moment, and Thomas would go to war.
Thomas was 36 that summer of 1914, Frost was 40; neither man had yet made his name as a poet. Thomas had published two dozen prose books and written almost 2,000 reviews, but he had still to write his first poem. He worked exhaustedly, hurriedly, « burning my candle at 3 ends », he told Frost, to meet the deadlines of London’s literary editors; he felt convinced that he amounted to little more than a hack. He was crippled by a depression that had afflicted him since university. His moods had become so desperate that on the day he was introduced to Frost, he carried in his pocket a purchase that he ominously referred to as his « Saviour »: probably poison, possibly a pistol, but certainly something with which he intended to harm himself.
At such periods of despair Thomas would lash out at his family, humiliating his wife, Helen, and provoking his three children to tears. He despised himself for the pain he inflicted on them and would leave home, sometimes for months on end, to spare them further agony. « Our life together never was, as it were, on the level – » Helen reflected candidly after his death, « it was either great heights or great depths. » But Edward’s heights were not Helen’s, and his depths were altogether deeper. He sought professional help at a time when little was available, and was fortunate to come under the supervision of a pioneering young doctor, a future pupil of Carl Jung’s, who attempted to treat him using a talking cure. The clinical sessions had been progressing for a year when Thomas abruptly turned his back on them. Yet he continued to look to others to help wrench him from his despondency, believing that a rescuer would one day emerge. « I feel sure that my salvation depends on a person, » he once prophesised, « and that person cannot be Helen because she has come to resemble me too much. » Such a figure would indeed arrive to help him in his distress – Robert Frost.
Frost had moved his family to England in 1912 in a bid to relaunch a stalled literary career. Then in his late 30s and a father of four, he had managed to publish only a handful of poems in America’s literary magazines. He had not been sure whether to relocate his family to London or to Vancouver, so while his wife did the ironing, he had taken a nickel from his pocket and flipped it. It was heads, which meant London, and two weeks later the entire family was steaming across the Atlantic.
He found a publisher in London for his poems soon enough (partly subsidised by himself), though few critics gave his work a second look. But Edward Thomas did. Where other reviewers mistook Frost’s verse as simplistic, Thomas was moved to announce his 1914 volume North of Boston as « one of the most revolutionary books of modern times ». Thomas was a fearless and influential critic, described by the Times as « the man with the keys to the Paradise of English Poetry ». He had been quick to identify the brilliance of a young American in London called Ezra Pound, and instrumental in shaping the early reception of Walter de la Mare, WH Davies and many others besides; and he was quite undaunted in taking to task the literary giants of the day if they fell below the mark, be they Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling or WB Yeats. When Thomas praised Frost, therefore, people began to take note.
North of Boston was a revolutionary work all right. In a mere 18 poems, it demonstrated the qualities that Frost and Thomas had – quite independently – come to believe were essential to the making of good verse. For both men, the engine of poetry was not rhyme or even form but rhythm, and the organ by which it communicated was the listening ear as opposed to the reading eye. For Thomas and Frost that entailed a fidelity to the phrase rather than to the metrical foot, to the rhythms of speech rather than those of poetic conventions, to what Frost liked to call « cadence ». If you have ever listened to voices through a closed door, Frost reasoned, you will have noticed how it can be possible to understand the general meaning of a conversation even when the specific words are muffled. This is because the tones and sentences with which we speak are coded with sonic meaning, a « sound of sense ». It is through this sense, unlocked by the rhythms of the speaking voice, that poetry communicates most profoundly: « A man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, » Thomas wrote.
Neither Frost nor Thomas claimed to be the first to think about poetry this way, but their views certainly set them apart from their contemporaries, who were in furious competition in the charged atmosphere of the years before the war. Strikers, unionists, suffragettes, Irish republicans and the unemployed were just some of the rebellious groups that England strove to tame in 1914, and might very well have failed to suppress had war not broken out. The young poets emerging at the same time were, in their own way, also in revolt against the decrepitude of Victorian Britain. The centre of their activities was the newly opened Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, from where two rival anthologies were produced: the manicured but popular Georgian Poetry, compiled by the secretary to the first lord of the Admiralty, Edward Marsh, and the radically experimental Des Imagistes, edited by Ezra Pound. It took no time at all for these parties to quarrel: so exasperating and offensive did Pound find Georgian verse that he challenged one of its protagonists to a duel.
Thomas and Frost ploughed their own furrow. Whenever Thomas visited Frost in 1914, they would walk out together on the fields of Gloucestershire; wherever they walked, they moved in an instinctive sympathy. Frost called these their « talks–walking »: and in them, their conversations ranged over marriage and friendship, wildlife, poetry and the war. Sometimes there was no talk and a silence gathered about them; but often at a gate or stile it started up again or was prompted by the meeting of a stranger in the lanes – a word or two and they were off again. They went without a map, setting their course by the sun or by the distant arc of May Hill crowning the view to the south; at dusk, the towering elms and Lombardy poplars or the light of a part-glimpsed cottage saw them home.
« He gave me standing as a poet, » Frost said of Thomas, « he more than anyone else. » But Frost would more than repay the favour that summer, recognising an innate poetry within Thomas’s prose writings, and imploring his friend to look back at his topographic books and « write them in verse form in exactly the same cadence ». Thomas would do just that, and with his friend’s encouragement, started down a path that would take him away from the « hack » work from which he earned his living. Jack Haines was a poet and solicitor living nearby in 1914 and was one of the few people who witnessed the transition at first hand. « It was towards the end of this same year that Thomas first began to write poetry himself, » Haines recorded, « and he did so certainly on the indirect, and I believe on the direct, suggestion of Frost, who thought that verse might prove that perfect mode of self-expression which Thomas had perhaps never previously found. »
The poems came quickly, « in a hurry and a whirl »: 75 in the first six months alone. He revised very little, explaining that the poetry neither asked for nor received much correction on paper. Often he went back to his prose to find his poem. Sometimes his source was a notebook that he kept on his walks, at other times his published books; and though the gap between his initial notes and a verse draft could be many months, once he began on the poem itself he usually completed it in a single day.
But poetry was not the only thing waking in Thomas in those summer months as the war began. Late in August, walking with Frost through the afternoon into the night, Thomas jotted in his notebook:
a sky of dark rough horizontal masses in N.W. with a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.
The war was three weeks old, and for the first time Thomas had imagined his countrymen fighting abroad, under the same moon as he. He was indifferent to the politics of the conflict, but he had begun to weigh up the worth of the land beneath his feet and the way of life that it supported. What would he do, if called on, to protect it, he asked himself. Would he do anything at all?
For a year, Thomas would question himself this way. It would take two incidents with Frost to help him to find his answer.
In late November 1914, Thomas and Frost were strolling in the woods behind Frost’s cottage when they were intercepted by the local gamekeeper, who challenged their presence and told the men bluntly to clear out. As a resident, Frost believed he was entitled to roam wherever he wished, and he told the keeper as much. The keeper was unimpressed and some sharp words were exchanged, and when the poets emerged on to the road they were challenged once more. Tempers flared and the keeper called Frost « a damned cottager » before raising his shotgun at the two men. Incensed, Frost was on the verge of striking the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading each other before then finally parting, the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked.
Thomas said that the keeper’s aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done about it. Frost’s ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done and done right now, and if Thomas wanted to follow him he could see it being done. The men turned back, Frost angrily, Thomas hesitantly, but the gamekeeper was no longer on the road. His temper wild, Frost insisted on tracking the man down, which they did, to a small cottage at the edge of a coppice. Frost beat on the door, and left the startled keeper in no doubt as to what would befall him were he ever to threaten him again or bar access to the preserve. Frost repeated his warning for good measure, turned on his heels and prepared to leave. What happened next would be a defining moment in Frost and Thomas’s friendship, and would plague Thomas to his dying days.
The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas who, until then, had not been his primary target. The gun was raised again; instinctively Thomas backed off once more, and the gamekeeper forced the men off his property and back on to the path, where they retreated under the keeper’s watchful aim.
Frost contented himself with the thought that he had given a good account of himself; but not Thomas, who wished that his mettle had not been tested in the presence of his friend. He felt sure that he had shown himself to be cowardly and suspected Frost of thinking the same. Not once but twice had he failed to hold his ground, while his friend had no difficulty standing his. His courage had been found wanting, at a time when friends such as Rupert Brooke had found it in themselves to face genuine danger overseas.
The encounter would leave Thomas haunted, to relive the moment again and again. In his verse and in his letters to Frost – in the week when he left for France, even in the week of his death – he recalled the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced in that stand-off with the gamekeeper. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. When the moment came he would hold his nerve and face the gunmen. « That’s why he went to war, » said Frost later.
But it would take one further episode in Thomas’s friendship with Frost to push him to war; and it would turn on a work of Frost’s that has become America’s best-loved poem.
In the early summer of 1915, six months after the row with the gamekeeper, Thomas had still to take his fateful decision to enlist. Zeppelins had brought the war emphatically to London, but Thomas’s eyes were on New Hampshire, to where Frost had returned earlier that year. Thomas prepared his mother for the news that he might emigrate, and told Frost he seemed certain to join him: « I am thinking about America as my only chance (apart from Paradise). » But Thomas’s prevarication got the better of him once more, and though conscription had yet to be introduced, he told Frost of the equal pull of the war in France. « Frankly I do not want to go, » he said of the fighting, « but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless. »
But the problem was not endless as Thomas thought, for a poem of Frost’s had arrived by post that would dramatically force Thomas’s hand: a poem called « Two Roads », soon to be rechristened « The Road Not Taken ». It finished:
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.
Noble, charismatic, wise: in the years since its composition, « The Road Not Taken » has been understood by some as an emblem of individual choice and self-reliance, a moral tale in which the traveller takes responsibility for – and so effects – his own destiny. But it was never intended to be read in this way by Frost, who was well aware of the playful ironies contained within it, and would warn audiences: « You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky. »
Frost knew that reading the poem as a straight morality tale ought to pose a number of difficulties. For one: how can we evaluate the outcome of the road not taken? For another: had the poet chosen the road more travelled by then that, logically, could also have made all the difference. And in case the subtlety was missed, Frost set traps in the poem intended to explode a more earnest reading. The two paths, he wrote, had been worn « really about the same », and « equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black », showing the reader that neither road was more or less travelled, and that choices may in some sense be equal.
But the poem carried a more personal message. Many were the walks when Thomas would guide Frost on the promise of rare wild flowers or birds’ eggs, only to end in self-reproach when the path he chose revealed no such wonders. Amused at Thomas’s inability to satisfy himself, Frost chided him, « No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another. »
To Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of his own fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness the most astutely – in particular, towards the war – appeared to be mocking him for it.
Thomas responded angrily. He did not subscribe to models of self-determination, or the belief that the spirit could triumph over adversity; some things seemed to him ingrained, inevitable. How free-spirited his friend seemed in comparison. This American who sailed for England on a long-shot, knowing no one and without a place to go, rode his literary fortunes and won his prize, then set sail again to make himself a new home. None of this was Thomas. « It isn’t in me, » he pleaded.
Frost insisted that Thomas was overreacting, and told his friend that he had failed to see that « the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing ». But Thomas saw no such fun, and said so bluntly, adding that he doubted anyone would see the fun of the thing without Frost to guide them personally. Frost, in fact, had already discovered as much on reading the poem before a college audience, where it was « taken pretty seriously », he admitted, despite « doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling . . . Mea culpa. »
« The Road Not Taken » did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. « Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me. »
In walking with Frost, he had written of the urgent need to protect – and if necessary, to fight for – the life and the landscape around him. « Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape, » he explained, though he had struggled for some time to see what it was that might be done. Finally, he understood. Thomas was passed fit by the doctor, and the same week, in July 1915, he sat down to lunch with a friend and informed her that he had enlisted in the Artists Rifles, and that he was glad; he did not know why, but he was glad.
« I had known that the struggle going on in his spirit would end like this, » his wife wrote.
Thomas brought a unique eye to the English landscape at a moment when it was facing irreversible change. His work seems distinctly modern in its recognition of the interdependence of human beings and the natural world, more closely attuned to our own ecological age than that of the first world war.
Though few of his poems were published in his lifetime, his admirers have been many: WH Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion and Michael Longley among them. But perhaps no poet ever valued him more highly than Robert Frost: « We were greater friends than almost any two ever were practising the same art, » he remarked. A war, a gamekeeper and a road not taken came between them, but by then they had altered one another’s lives irrevocably. Thomas pulled his friend’s work from obscurity into a clearing, from which the American would go on to sell a million poetry books in his lifetime. Frost, in turn, released the poet within Thomas, and would even find a publisher for his verse in the United States. That book would carry a dedication that Thomas had scribbled on the eve of sailing for France: « To Robert Frost ». Frost responded in kind, writing: « Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had. »
At twilight when walking, or at the parting of ways with a friend, Thomas could feel great sadness that his journey must come to an end:
Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity.
He was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras, Easter 1917; he had survived little more than two months in France. Yet his personal war was never with a military opponent: it had been with his ravaging depression and with his struggle to find a literary expression through poetry that was worthy of his talents. And on the latter, at least, he won his battle.
William H. Pritchard
On December 16, 1916, he received a warm letter from Meiklejohn, looking forward to his presence at Amherst and saying that that morning in chapel he had read aloud « The Road Not Taken, » « and then told the boys about your coming. They applauded vigorously and were evidently much delighted by the prospect. »
Alexander Meiklejohn was an exceptionally high-minded educator whose principles and whose moral tone toward things may be illustrated most briefly and clearly by some statements from his essay « What the College Is. » This, his inaugural address as president of Amherst, was printed for a time as an introduction to the college catalogue. What the college was, or should be -what Meiklejohn hoped to make Amherst into – was a place to be thought of as « liberal, » that is, « essentially intellectual »: « The college is primarily not a place of the body, nor of the feelings, nor even of the will; it is, first of all, a place of the mind. » Introducing « the boys » to the intellectual life led for its own sake, would save them from pettiness and dullness, would save them from being one of what Meiklejohn referred to as « the others »:
There are those among us who will find so much satisfaction in the countless trivial and vulgar amusements of a crude people that they have no time for the joys of the mind. There are those who are so closely shut up within a little round of petty pleasures they that have never dreamed of the fun of reading and conversing and investigating and reflecting.
A liberal education would rescue boys from stupidity, its purpose being to draw from that « reality-loving American boy » something like « an intellectual enthusiasm. » But this result could not be achieved, Meiklejohn added, without a thorough reversal of the curriculum: « I should like to see every freshman at once plunged into the problems of philosophy, » he said with enthusiasm.
Now, five years after his address, he was bringing to Amherst someone outside the usual academic orbit, a poet who lacked even a college degree. But despite – or perhaps because of – this lack, the poet had escaped triviality, was an original mind who knew about living by ideas. For he had written among other poems « The Road Not Taken, » given pride of place in the just-published Mountain Interval as not only its first poem but also printed in italics, as though to make it also a preface to and motto for the poems which followed. It was perfect for Meiklejohn’s purposes because it was no idle reverie, no escape through lovely language into a soothing dream world, but a poem rather which announced itself to be « about » important issues in life: about the nature of choice, of decision, of how to go in one direction rather than another and how to feel about the direction you took and didn’t take. For President Meiklejohn and for the assembled students at compulsory chapel, it might have been heard as a stirring instance of what the « liberal college » was all about, since it showed how, instead of acceding to the petty pleasures, the « countless trivial and vulgar amusements » offered by the world or the money-god or the values of the marketplace, an individual could go his own way, live his own life, read his own books, take the less traveled road:
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 poem ended, the boys « applauded vigorously, » and surely Meiklejohn congratulated himself just a bit on making the right choice, taking the less traveled road and inviting a poet to join the Amherst College faculty.
What the president could hardly have imagined, committed as he was in high seriousness to making the life of the college truly an intellectual one, was the unruliness of Frost’s spirit and its unwillingness to be confined within the formulas – for Meiklejohn, they were the truths – of the « liberal college. » On the first day of the new year, 1917, just preparatory to moving his family down from the Franconia farm into a house in Amherst, Frost wrote Untermeyer about where the fun lay in what he, Frost, thought of as « intellectual activity »:
You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate – that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.
The « fun » is « outside, » and lies in doing something like teasing, suggesting formulae that don’t formulate, or not quite. The fun is not in being « essentially intellectual » or in manifesting « intellectual enthusiasm » in Meiklejohn’s sense of the phrase, but in being « subtle, » and not just subtle but so much so as to fool « the casual person » into thinking that what you said was obvious. If we juxtapose these remarks with his earlier determination to reach out as a poet to all sorts and kinds of people, and if we think of « The Road Not Taken » as a prime example of a poem which succeeded in reaching out and taking hold, then something interesting emerges about the kind of relation to other people, to readers – or to students and college presidents – Frost was willing to live with, indeed to cultivate.
For the large moral meaning which « The Road Not Taken » seems to endorse – go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make « all the difference »-does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance « really about the same, » that they « equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black, » and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had « perhaps the better claim. » But in the final stanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told « with a sigh » and « ages and ages hence. » At that imagined time and unspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsive matter into a deliberate one of taking the « less traveled » road:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Is it not the high tone of poignant annunciation that really makes all the difference? An earlier version of the poem had no dash after « I »; presumably Frost added it to make the whole thing more expressive and heartfelt. And it was this heartfelt quality which touched Meiklejohn and the students.
Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that « I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken, » and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as « fooling my way along. » He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent « The Road Not Taken » to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that « I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on. » And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost’s notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as « the fun of the thing. » It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost’s work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:
Nothing ever so sincere
That unless it’s out of sheer
Mischief and a little queer
It wont prove a bore to hear.
The mischievous aspect of « The Road Not Taken » is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a « sincere » poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.
From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.
A close look at the poem reveals that Frost’s walker encounters two nearlv identical paths: so he insists, repeatedly. The walker looks down one, first, then the other, « as just as fair. » Indeed, « the passing there / Had worn them reallv about the same. » As if the reader hasn’t gotten the message, Frost says for a third time. « And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black. » What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: « When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying. » Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word « I, » which rhymes – several times – with the inflated word « sigh. » Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh.
From « Frost » in Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. Copyright © 1988 by the Columbia University Press.
« THE ROAD NOT TAKEN » can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called « The Choice of the Two Paths, » reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well. In Reson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter « Y » with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two paths branching off at the age when the child is expected to exercise discretion. In one design the « Two Paths » are shown in great detail. « On one side a thin line of pious folk ascend a hill past several churches and chapels, and so skyward to the Heavenly City where an angel stands proffering a crown. On the other side a crowd of men and women are engaged in feasting, music, love-making, and other carnal pleasures while close behind them yawns the flaming mouth of hell in which sinners are writhing. But hope is held out for the worldly for some avoid hell and having passed through a dark forest come to the rude huts of Humility and Repentance. » Embedded in this quotation is a direct reference to the opening of Dante’s Inferno:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was the forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more.
From the beginning, when it appeared as the first poem in Mountain Interval (1916), many readers have overstated the importance of « The Road Not Taken » to Frost’s work. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, did so when, announcing the appointment of the poet to the school’s faculty he recited it to a college assembly.
« The Choice of Two Paths » is suggested in Frost’s decision to make his two roads not very much different from one another, for passing over one of them had the effect of wearing them « really about the same. » This is a far cry from, say, the description of the « two waies » offered in the seventeenth century by Henry Crosse:
Two waies are proposed and laide open to all, the one inviting to vertue, the other alluring to vice; the first is combersome, intricate, untraded, overgrowne, and many obstacles to dismay the passenger; the other plaine, even beaten, overshadowed with boughes, tapistried with flowers, and many objects to feed the eye; now a man that lookes but only to the outward shewe, will easily tread the broadest pathe, but if hee perceive that this smooth and even way leads to a neast of Scorpions: or a litter of Beares, he will rather take the other though it be rugged and unpleasant, than hazard himselfe in so great a daunger.
Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word « roads » rather than « waies » or « paths » or even « pathways. » 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!' »
Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatory Frost’s readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of two facts of Frost’s life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of the Inferno Dante is thirty-five, « midway on the road of life, » notes Charles Eliot Norton.) The first of these, an event, took place in the winter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, a general observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks in England with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.
In Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant locates in one of Frost’s letters the source for « The Road Not Taken. » To Susan Hayes Ward the poet wrote on February 10, 1912:
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
This portentous account of meeting « another » self (but not encountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) would eventually result in a poem quite different from « The Road Not Taken » and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties the moment with Frost’s decision to go off at this time to some place where he could devote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream for future poetic use.
That poetic use would occur three years later. In 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. By all the signs he was ready to settle down for a long stay. Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas. Later, when readers persisted in misreading « The Road Not Taken, » Frost insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet. For Thomas had invariably fussed over irrevocable choices of the most minor sort made on daily walks with Frost in 1914, shortly before the writing of the poem. Later Frost insisted that in his case the line « And that has made all the difference »—taken straight—was all wrong. « Of course, it hasn’t, » he persisted, « it’s just a poem, you know. » In 1915, moreover, his sole intention was to twit Thomas. Living in Gloucestershire, writes Lawrance Thompson, Frost had frequently taken long countryside walks with Thomas.
Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a « better » direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. . . . Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid.
If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, « The Road Not Taken » was intended to serve as Frost’s gentle jest at Thomas’s expense. But the poem might have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who in a different sense might also be considered a « friend »: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem, « My Lost Youth, » had provided Frost with A Boy’s Will, the title he chose for his first book.
« The Road Not Taken » can be placed against a passage in Longfellow’s notebooks: « Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be,—a psychological romance of possibilities and things that do not happen. By going out a few minutes sooner or later, by stopping to speak with a friend at a corner, by meeting this man or that, or by turning down this street instead of the other, we may let slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed. There is no possible solution to the dark enigma but the one word, ‘Providence.' »
Longfellow’s tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates the same qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost’s dream encounter with his other self at a crossroads in the woods had a » subterranean connection » with the whole of « The Road Not Taken, » especially with the poem’s last lines:
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.
Undoubtedly. But whereas Longfellow had invoked Providence to account for acts performed and actions not taken, Frost calls attention only to the role of human choice. A second target was the notion that « whatever choice we make, we make at our peril. » The words just quoted are Fitz-James Stephen’s, but it is more important that Frost encountered them in William James’s essay « The Will to Believe. » In fact, James concludes his final paragraph on the topic: « We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better. » The danger inherent in decision, in this brave passage quoted with clear-cut approval by the teacher Frost « never had, » does not playa part in « The Road Not Taken. » Frost the « leaf-treader » will have none of it, though he will not refuse to make a choice. Nothing will happen to him through default. Nor, argues the poet, is it likely that anyone will melodramatically be dashed to pieces.
It is useful to see Frost’s projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas’s characteristic regrets, to note that Frost’s poem takes a sly poke at Longfellow’s more generalized awe before the notion of what might have happened had it not been for the inexorable workings of Providence, and to see « The Road Not Taken » as a bravura tossing off of Fitz-James Stephen’s mountainous and meteorological scenario. We can also project the poem against a poem by Emily Dickinson that Frost had encountered twenty years earlier in Poems, Second Series (1891).
Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term.
Our pace took sudden awe,
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.
Retreat was out of hope,—
Behind, a sealed route,
Eternity’s white flag before,
And God at every gate.
Dickinson’s poem is straightforwardly and orthodoxically religious. But it can be seen that beyond the « journey » metaphor Dickinson’s poem employs diction— »road » and « forest »—that recalls « The Choice of the Two Paths » trope, the opening lines of the Inferno, and Frost’s secular poem « The Road Not Taken. »
from Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.
« The Road Not Taken, » perhaps the most famous example of Frost’s own claims to conscious irony and « the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. » Thompson documents the ironic impulse that produced the poem as Frost’s « gently teasing » response to his good friend, Edward Thomas, who would in their walks together take Frost down one path and then regret not having taken a better direction. According to Thompson, Frost assumes the mask of his friend, taking his voice and his posture, including the un-Frostian sounding line, « I shall be telling this with a sigh, » to poke fun at Thomas’s vacillations; Frost ever after, according to Thompson, tried to bring audiences to the ironic point, warning one group, « You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky » (Letters xiv-xv). Thompson’s critical evaluation is simply that Frost had, in that particular poem, « carried himself and his ironies too subtly, » so that the poem is, in effect, a failure (Letters xv). Yet is it simply that – a too exact parody of a mediocre poetic voice, which becomes among the sentimental masses, ironically, one of the most popularly beloved of Frost’s « wise » poems? This is the easiest way to come to terms critically with the popularity of « The Road Not Taken » but it is not, perhaps, the only or best way: in this critical case, the road less traveled may indeed be more productive.
For Frost by all accounts was genuinely fond of Thomas. He wrote his only elegy to Thomas and he gives him, in that poem, the highest praise of all from one who would, himself, hope to be a « good Greek »: he elegizes Thomas as « First soldier, and then poet, and then both, / Who died a soldier-poet of your race. » He recalls Thomas to Amy Lowell, saying « the closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas » (Letters 220). 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 » (Letters 220). It might be argued that in becoming Thomas in « The Road Not Taken, » Frost momentarily loses his defensive preoccupation with disguising lyric involvement to the extent that ironic weapons fail him. A rare instance in Frost’s poetry in which there is a loved and reciprocal figure, the poem is divested of the need to keep the intended reader at bay. Here Frost is not writing about that contentiously erotic love which is predicated on the sexual battles between a man and a woman, but about a higher love, by the terms of the good Greek, between two men. As Plato says in the Symposium (181, b-c), « But the heavenly love springs from a goddess [Aphrodite] whose attributes have nothing of the female, but are altogether male, and who is also the elder of the two, and innocent of any hint of lewdness. And so those who are inspired by this other Love turn rather to the male, preferring the more vigorous and intellectual bent. » If the poem is indeed informed by such love, it becomes the most consummate irony of all, as it shows, despite one level of Frost’s intentions, how fraternal love can transmute swords to plowshares, how, indeed, two roads can look about the same, be traveled about the same, and be utterly transformed by the traveler. Frost sent this poem as a letter, as a communication in the most basic sense, to a man to whom he says, in « To E. T., » « I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain / Unsaid between us, brother . . . » When nothing is meant to remain unsaid, and when the poet’s best hope is to see his friend « pleased once more with words of mine, » all simple ironies are made complex. « The Road Not Taken, » far from being merely a failure of ironic intent, may be seen as a touchstone for the complexities of analyzing Frost’s ironic voices.
From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Self-reliance in « The Road Not Taken » is alluringly embodied as the outcome of a story presumably representative of all stories of self-hood, and whose central episode is that moment of the turning-point decision, the crisis from which a self springs: a critical decision consolingly, for Frost’s American readers, grounded in a rational act when a self, and therefore an entire course of life, are autonomously and irreversibly chosen. The particular Fireside poetic structure in which Frost incarnates this myth of selfhood is the analogical landscape poem, perhaps most famously executed by William Cullen Bryant in « To a Waterfowl, » a poem that Matthew Arnold praised as the finest lyric of the nineteenth century and that Frost had by heart as a child thanks to his mother’s enthusiasm.
The analogical landscape poem draws its force from the culturally ancient and pervasive idea of nature as allegorical book, in its American poetic setting a book out of which to draw explicit lessons for the conduct of life (nature as self-help text). In its classic Fireside expression, the details of landscape and all natural events are cagily set up for moral summary as they are marched up to the poem’s conclusion, like little imagistic lambs to slaughter, for their payoff in uplifting message. Frost appears to recapitulate the tradition ‘in his sketching of the yellow wood and the two roads and in his channeling of the poem’s course of events right up to the portentous colon (« Somewhere ages and ages hence: ») beyond which lies the wisdom that we jot down and take home:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
If we couple such tradition-bound thematic structure with Frost’s more or less conventional handling of metric, stanzaic form and rhyme scheme, then we have reason enough for Ellery Sedgwick’s acceptance of this poem for the Atlantic: no « caviar to the crowd » here.
And yet Frost has played a subtle game in an effort to have it both ways. In order to satisfy the Atlantic and its readers, he hews closely to the requirements of popular genre writing and its mode of poetic production, the mass circulation magazine. But at the same time he has more than a little undermined what that mode facilitates in the realm of American poetic and political ideals. There must be two roads and they must, of course, be different if the choice of one over the other is to make a rational difference (« And that has made all the difference »). But the key fact, that on the particular morning when the choice was made the two roads looked « about the same, » makes it difficult to understand how the choice could be rationally grounded on (the poem’s key word) perceptible, objective « difference. » The allegorical « way » has been chosen, a self has been forever made, but not because a text has been « read » and the « way » of nonconformity courageously, ruggedly chosen. The fact is, there is no text to be read, because reading requires a differentiation of signs, and on that morning clear signifying differences were obliterated. Frost’s delivery of this unpleasant news has long been difficult for his readers to hear because he cunningly throws it away in a syntax of subordination that drifts out of thematic focus. The unpleasant news is hard to hear, in addition, because Fireside form demands, and therefore creates the expectation of, readable textual differences in the book of nature. Frost’s heavy investment in traditional structure virtually assures that Fireside literary form will override and cover its mischievous handling in this poem.
For a self to be reliant, decisive, nonconformist, there must already be an autonomous self out of which to propel decision. But what propelled choice on that fateful morning? Frost’s speaker does not choose out of some rational capacity; he prefers, in fact, not to choose at all. That is why he can admit to what no self-respecting self-reliant self can admit to: that he is « sorry » he « could not travel both/And be one traveler. » The good American ending, the last three lines of the poem, is prefaced by two lines of storytelling self-consciousness in which the speaker, speaking in the present to a listener (reader) to whom he has just conveyed « this, » his story of the past – everything preceding the last stanza – in effect tells his auditor that in some unspecified future he will tell it otherwise, to some gullible audience, tell it the way they want to hear it, as a fiction of autonomous intention.
The strongly sententious yet ironic last stanza in effect predicts the happy American construction which « The Road Not Taken » has been traditionally understood to endorse — predicts, in other words, what the poem will be sentimentally made into, but from a place in the poem that its Atlantic Monthly reading, as it were, will never touch. The power of the last stanza within the Fireside teleology of analogical landscape assures Frost his popular audience, while for those who get his game — some member, say, of a different audience, versed in the avant-garde little magazines and in the treacheries of irony and the impulse of the individual talent trying, as Pound urged, to « make it new » against the literary and social American grain – for that reader, this poem tells a different tale: that our life-shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control. This is the fabled « wisdom » of Frost, which he hides in a moralizing statement that asserts the consoling contrary of what he knows.
from Frank Lentricchia, Modernist Quartet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995: 71-74.
The ironies of this poem have been often enough remarked. Not least among them is the contrast of the title with the better-remembered phrase of the poem’s penultimate line: « the [road] less travelled by » (CPPP 103). 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-traveled road that the speaker himself fails to take? Precisely who is not doing the taking? This initial ambiguity sets in play equivocations that extend throughout the poem. Of course, the broadest irony in the poem derives from the fact that the speaker merely asserts that the road he takes is « less travelled »: the second and third stanzas make clear that « the passing there » had worn these two paths « really about the same » and that « both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. » Strong medial caesurae in the poem’s first ten lines comically emphasize the « either-or » deliberations in which the speaker is engaged, and which have, apparently, no real consequence: nothing issues from them. Only in the last stanza is any noticeable difference between the two roads established, and that difference is established by fiat: the speaker simply declares that the road he took was less travelled. There is nothing to decide between them. There is no meaningful « choice » to make, or rather no more choice than is meaningfully apparent to the « step-careless » politician of Frost’s parable of decision in « The Constant Symbol. »
Comical as « The Road Not Taken » may be, there is serious matter in it, as my reading of « The Constant Symbol » is meant to suggest. « Step-carelessness » has its consequences; choices—even when they are undertaken so lightly as to seem unworthy of the name « choice »—are always more momentous, and very often more providential, than we suppose. There may be, one morning in a yellow wood, no difference between two roads—say, the Democratic and the Republican parties. But « way leads on to way, » as Frost’s speaker says, and pretty soon you find yourself in the White House. As I argue throughout this chapter, this is the indifference that Frost wants us to see: « youthful step-carelessness » really is a form of « step-carefulness. » But it is only by setting out, by working our way well into the wood, that we begin to understand the meaning of the choices we make and the character of the self that is making them; in fact, only then can we properly understand our actions as choices. The speaker vacillates in the first three stanzas of « The Road Not Taken, » but his vacillations, viewed in deeper perspective, seem, and in fact really are, « decisive. » We are too much in the middle of things, Frost seems to be saying, ever to understand when we are truly « acting » and « deciding » and when we are merely reacting and temporizing. Our paths unfold themselves to us as we go. We realize our destination only when we arrive at it, though all along we were driven toward it by purposes we may rightly claim, in retrospect, as our own. Frost works from Emerson’s recognition in « Experience »:
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. …If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. (Essays 471)
Frost’s is an Emersonian philosophy in which indecisiveness and decision feel very much alike—a philosophy in which acting and being acted upon form indistinguishable aspects of a single experience. There is obviously a contradiction in « The Road Not Taken » between the speaker’s assertion of difference in the last stanza and his indifferent account of the roads in the first three stanzas. But it is a contradiction more profitably described—in light of Frost’s other investigations of questions about choice, decision, and action—as a paradox. He lets us see, as I point out above, that every action is in some degree intemperate, incalculable, « step-careless. » The speaker of « The Road Not Taken, » like the politician described in « The Constant Symbol, » is therefore a figure for us all. This complicates the irony of the poem, saving it from platitude on the one hand (the M. Scott Peck reading) and from sarcasm on the other (the biographical reading of the poem merely as a joke about Edward Thomas). I disagree with Frank Lentricchia’s suggestion in Modernist Quartet that « The Road Not Taken » shows how « our life- shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control » (75). The author of « The Trial by Existence » would never contend that we are fundamentally out of control—or at least not do so in earnest.
from The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
« The Road Not Taken » is an ironic commentary on the autonomy of choice in a world governed by instincts, unpredictable contingencies, and limited possibilities. It parodies and demurs from the biblical idea that God is the « way » that can and should be followed and the American idea that nature provides the path to spiritual enlightenment. The title refers doubly to bravado for choosing a road less traveled but also to regret for a road of lost possibility and the eliminations and changes produced by choice. « The Road Not Taken » reminds us of the consequences of the principle of selection in al1 aspects of life, namely that al1 choices in knowledge or in action exclude many others and lead to an ironic recognitions of our achievements. At the heart of the poem is the romantic mythology of flight from a fixed world of limited possibility into a wilderness of many possibilities combined with trials and choices through which the pilgrim progresses to divine perfection. I agree with Frank Lentricchia’s view that the poem draws on « the culturally ancient and pervasive idea of nature as allegorical book, out of which to draw explicit lessons for the conduct of life (nature as self-help text). » I would argue that what it is subverting is something more profound than the sentimental expectations of genteel readers of fireside poetry. . . .
The drama of the poem is of the persona making a choice between two roads. As evolved creatures, we should be able to make choices, but the poem suggests that our choices are irrational and aesthetic. The sense of meaning and morality derived from choice is not reconciled but, rather obliterated and canceled by a nonmoral monism. Frost is trying to reconcile impulse with a con- science that needs goals and harbors deep regrets. The verb Frost uses is taken, which means something less conscious than chosen. The importance of this opposition to Frost is evident in the way he changed the tide of « Take Something Like a Star » to « Choose Something Like a Star, » and he continued to alter tides in readings and publications. Take suggests more of an unconscious grasp than a deliberate choice. (Of course, it also suggests action as opposed to deliberation.) In « The Road Not Taken » the persona’s reasons wear thin, and choice is confined by circumstances and the irrational:
Both roads had been worn « about the same, » though his « taking » the second is based on its being less worn. The basis of selection is individuation, variation, and « difference »: taking the one « less traveled by. » That he « could not travel both / And be one traveler » means not only that he will never be able to return but also that experience alters the traveler; he would not be the same by the time he came back. Frost is presenting an antimyth in which origin, destination, and return are undermined by a nonprogressive development. And the hero has only illusory choice. This psychological representation of the developmental principle of divergence strikes to the core of Darwinian theory. Species are made and survive when individuals diverge from others in a branching scheme, as the roads diverge for the speaker. The process of selection implies an unretracing process of change through which individual kinds are permanently altered by experience. Though the problem of making a choice at a crossroads is almost a commonplace, the drama of the poem conveys a larger mythology by including evolutionary metaphors and suggesting the passage of eons.
The change of tense in the penultimate line—to took—is part of the speaker’s projection of what he « shall be telling, » but only retrospectively and after « ages and ages. » Though he cannot help feeling free in selection, the speaker’s wisdom is proved only through survival of an unretraceable course of experience:
The poem leaves one wondering how much « difference » is implied by all, given that the « roads » already exist, that possibilities are limited. Exhausted possibilities of human experience diminish great regret over « the road not taken » or bravado for « the road not taken » by everyone else. The poem does raise questions about whether there is any justice in the outcome of one’s choices or anything other than aesthetics, being « fair, » in our moral decisions. The speaker’s impulse to individuation is mitigated by a moral dilemma of being unfair or cruel, in not stepping on leaves, « treading » enough to make them « black. » It might also imply the speaker’s recognition that individuation will mean treading on others.
from Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan
La route non prise
Robert Frost, 1916
Deux routes divergeaient dans un bois jaune
Et désolé de ne pas pouvoir prendre les deux
Tout en restant un seul voyageur, je suis resté longtemps
A regarder l’une des deux aussi loin que je le pouvais,
Jusqu’au point où son virage se perdait dans les broussailles
Alors j’ai pris l’autre, tout aussi séduisante
Et peut-être encore plus justifiée
Parce qu’herbeuse et manquant quelque peu d’usure
Bien que franchement, les passages,
Les aient usées à peu près de façon identique
Et toutes les deux se reposaient, ce matin là,
Sous des feuilles qu’aucun pied n’avait noircies
Ah! J’ai gardé l’autre pour un autre jour!
Sachant pourtant comment un chemin nous mène à l’autre
Je doutais que jamais j’y revienne à nouveau
Un jour je me retrouverai à raconter avec un soupir
Quelque part dans un lointain avenir que
Deux routes divergeaient dans un bois, et moi,
J’ai pris celle qui était la moins prise,
Et c’est cela qui a tout changé.