Robert Frost: The Trickster on the Road.

“If we would understand poetry,

let us be informed about a poet’s experience

and crises out of which he speaks honestly

if painfully. For at the heart of the poem is a

poet’s own heart.”    Reginald Cook

frostWhen Mark Twain died in April of 1910, the poet Robert Frost had just turned 34-years-old.  He lived into his late eighties and delivered a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Frost had one foot firmly planted in the 19th century and the other in the 20th century.  It is a tricky thing to write about him.  His most recent biographer, Jay Parini writes  “the contradictions of his life and work remain stunning.  He was a loner who like company; a poet of isolation who sought a mass audience; a rebel who sought to fit in.

How you view Frost depends on the biographer’s lens. You may find the avuncular farmer-poet and classical humanist, a mean-spirited megalomaniac genius or something in between.  Like Walt Whitman famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Frost himself laughingly refers to his dicta as “contradictions that make sense.”

At a Bread Loaf School Address in June of 1955, Frost said, “That comes to this question of who has the right to do what he pleases with my poetry – the right kind of people that can take it their way.  There’s a good deal of sway in it.  There’s certain deftness, definiteness, but it sways at its anchor.  It swings at its anchor tow.  And of course that is the fun of it.”

Frost once remarked that one of his most celebrated and anthologized poems, “The Road Not Taken,” was a tricky poem.

The poet and long-time friend of Frost, Louis Untermeyer, called the “The Road Not Taken,” a much-quoted and much-misunderstood poem.”

 Two roads diverged in the 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, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that 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 words diverged in the woods and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The tricky part of the poem is that, like Frost, it is filled with “contradictions that make sense.”

There is just enough sway in the poem to read it as an anthem to taking the less traveled road.  But if you read the lines carefully, both roads are “equally fair” and “worn just the same,” it’s obvious that there’s obvious choice.

The catalyst for the poem comes from an experience that Frost described in a letter to Susan Ward in 1912.  According to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, “While walking on a ‘two lonely crossroads,” ‘neither much travelled, after a winter storm, Frost met a silent, approaching Poe-like figure who seemed to be his spectral double…”

Frost wove the seed of this idea into a poem about his good friend, Edward Thomas, a Welsh poet who was never content with the choices he made and whenever out “botanizing” with Frost, would regret the path they had chosen.  Frost said to Thomas, “no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.

What is important is not the road itself, but the decision about which road to take and the unknown consequences that follow.

Symbolically, the roads lead down different paths in life.  It is human nature to embrace curiosity and ponder where the other path might have led.

In The Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, William Barrett writes about the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in words that echoes the travelers plight: “…the man who has chosen irrevocably, whose choice has once and for all sundered him from a certain possibility for himself and his life, is thereby thrown back on the reality of that self in all its mortality and finitude”

And Untermeyer, who knew Frost well, wrote, “Even at the moment of choice, the poet quizzically imagined that the choice was important, that he would someday tell himself he took the road less traveled.”

He continues: “The poet’s “difference” is in him from the beginning, long before he sets out on his career.  The road that Frost took was not only the “different” road, the right road for him, but the only road he could have taken.”

Whatever path we ultimately choose is an unknowable mix of choice and chance and we come to accept or lament it as we age.

Again, the tricky part of the poem is Frost’s sway.  He willingly gives up interpretations to the “right kind of people” and provides just enough ambiguity to allow the poem to live with the patina of uncertainty that color our choices in life.

That sway is what makes The Road Not Taken, a path well worth pursuing.

Sources cited:

On Taking Poetry June 30, 1955 Bread Loaf Address

An Introduction to Robert Frost, Elizabeth Isaacs

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken, Louis Untermeyer

Robert Frost, Jeffrey Meyer

Robert Frost: A Life, Jay Parini

Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays, Library of America

Irrational Man: A study in Existential Philosophy, William Barrett