Thursday, August 20, 2009

The road not taken

For a while now I’ve been reading “The intellectual devotional: 365 daily lessons from the seven fields of knowledge”… It’s something you read one page at a time with a quick summary of some topic, history, music, literature, philosophy etc. It’s a bit too highbrow to be of use at trivia pub quiz (the answer to one of last night’s final round questions was “Kathy Ireland”). But yesterday’s entry was so riveting I’ll include the whole thing here:

“There exists probably no American poem so frequently quoted yet so widely misinterpreted as Robert Frost’s “The road not taken”. Almost without fail, readers miss the meaning of the poem by miles, seeing it as a rosy testament to the speaker’s faith in free will and an inspiring call to defy convention and take the road “less traveled by”. But close reading reveals that the poem actually is laden with the ironic resignation for which Frost was renowned.

The point most overlooked in the poem is the utter arbitrariness of the speaker’s decision about which road to take. In describing his choice between the two paths, he emphasizes repeatedly that they were essentially identical. One path looks “as just as fair” as the other, and despite the speaker’s desire to differentiate them, he acknowledges that “the passing there/Had worn them really about the same.” On a whim, he chooses one over the other.

In the last stanza, Frost injects his trademark wry humor. The speaker admits that “ages and ages hence,” as a reminiscing old man, he will probably retell this story “with a sigh” and claim that he courageously chose the unorthodox route, the one “less traveled by.” But such a claim would be false. The speaker just finished telling us that his choice was totally arbitrary, as there was no “less traveled” path to begin with: they both “equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” Frost recognizes the human tendency to self-aggrandize, to sugarcoat the uncertainty of life, to take comfort in viewing life as a series of conscious, knowable choices between good and bad alternatives. But his ultimate point is that in reality, we have no way of knowing which path in life is best, and our decisions are just as often random, uneducated guesses”.

I can't help but picture generations of English teachers wincing through graduation speeches misinterpretting this poem.

1 comment:

  1. so one wonders how he knows that he:

    ...took the one less traveled by

    having never had the chance to return. The well-known conclusion is noteworthy, of course:

    And that has made all the difference.

    Indeed! That's what I worry about. I rather like the opposite idea, that it doesn't matter which way you go, they all get you where you want to go. To say nothing against Frost's great poem.

    Nice post :)