Sunday, February 09, 2014

Robert Frost makes no damn sense

It was received wisdom, back in high school, that chicks loved the poetry of Robert Frost. His most memorable poem, "The Road Not Taken" (sometimes mistakenly referred to as "The Road Less Traveled," a phrase that almost appears in the poem itself, and that is also the title of a book by Dr. M. Scott Peck), is often cited by both men and women who see it as a call to live a more interesting life by being unconventional. Most people understand the poem to be saying that, when confronted with two paths, the poet took the one used by fewer people. When I recently reread the poem, however, I found myself shocked by how nonsensical it is. First: taking a path that is "less traveled" isn't the same as taking a heretofore untraveled path. What's so unconventional about the less-traveled route? Far from being completely unconventional, it's only slightly less conventional. There's no rejection of boring conformism here—it's merely watered-down conformism. Second, and more damningly, Frost provides almost no evidence, in his poem, that the supposedly less-traveled path actually is less traveled. Let's go through the poem so you can see what I mean. My comments will be in red.

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

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;

Technically, one road diverged and became two. We're already off to a bad start. Note, meanwhile, where the stanza ends: it's autumn ("a yellow wood"); the poet stands at the fork and is examining one of the two possible paths.

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,

Frost skips the moment in which the poet explicitly examines the other possible path, instead moving straight to the next phase: a comparison of the two paths that lie ahead. Are these two paths equally appealing? This stanza is frustratingly ambiguous on that point. The "grassy and wanted wear" remark is blatantly contradicted by the "just as fair" and "worn them really about the same" remarks. If the paths had really been "worn... about the same," then one of the two paths would not appear distinctly more grassy and wanting wear. So: which is it, Bob? Are the paths equally worn, or aren't they?

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.

Here again, the paths seem equally trodden—or rather, untrodden: "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." By this point in the poem, the poet has made his decision as to which path to take (see the second stanza), although I fail to see how he made the decision, given his sloppy, illogical thinking. So now we've gone from a "more trodden/less trodden" comparison to an "equally untrodden" state of affairs!

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.

Again with the "two roads"! This is scandalous. "I took the one less traveled by"—forsooth! But which fork, Robert, was "less traveled by"? Hellfire and bloody damnation!

There are further questions, to be sure. Is road the appropriate term for a forested path? The word road normally implies the existence of vehicles. If vehicles—carriages, say—could use either of these roads, how could either road afford to be overgrown with plant life? And why would the poet be looking for evidence of foot traffic instead of looking for wheel ruts? Also: what if Frost wasn't mistaken when he wrote of two roads that diverged, and was literally referring to two roads that ran parallel to each other for a time before finally diverging? If that's the case, then where was the poet standing? In the tree-filled median between the two roads? What sort of weirdo walks in a forested median when two clear, walkable paths lie on either side of it? Was the poet on one of the two roads? If so, had he already been following one of the two roads for a while? And why would two parallel roads be running through a forest, anyway? Environmentalists would have kittens.

If this is how Robert Frost actually thought and spoke in his lifetime, I cringe to imagine how he would have been as a witness at a murder trial.

ATTORNEY: So, Mr. Frost, you did see the two defendants and you can say which one killed the child?

FROST: I can, sir.

ATTORNEY: Please elaborate.

FROST: Two men appeared in front of me, and one of them killed the little boy.

ATTORNEY: And which man was that?

FROST: Why, the more murderous one, of course.

ATTORNEY: Which man was the more murderous?

FROST: They were equally murderous, truth be told.

ATTORNEY: I'm sorry? Equally murderous? Could you please clarify?

FROST: What I mean to say is that the two men were equally peaceful.

ATTORNEY: I... see...

FROST: It's all quite simple, really. Two men approached a child and I, I saw the one raise his axe high, and that has made all the difference.

ATTORNEY: So you're saying, Mr. Frost, that—

FROST: It may have been only one man, at that.

ATTORNEY (exasperated): Which man, sir?

FROST: The one with the axe, of course.


The moral of the story: Robert Frost can't count, can't compare, and can't think. Enjoy, ladies.

(Either that, or Frost was a Buddhist prophet of nondualism for whom concepts like number and distinctness didn't matter.)



SJHoneywell said...

I've never analyzed this poem in this way. The main reason for that is because I differ with everyone else on what it means.

Most people take this to be a poem that extols the joys of going your own way and escaping from conformity. I think the sigh at the end of the last verse indicates that he wishes he'd made the other choice. All of the difference in this case is a difference not for the better.

Kevin Kim said...


In seeking out this poem online, I came across some reader commentary that's similar to what you're saying. I, too, wonder about the meaning of the sigh, and suspect that it may not mean what most people think it means.

John said...

Thanks for ruining a perfectly fine poem.

Actually, you didn't. Poetry is like art I suppose in that it "speaks" to you as an individual and there is no right or wrong way to describe what it means to you or how it makes you feel.

I've always seen this poem more along the lines of what you were talking about yesterday in your "determinism" post. Whether or not the universe embodies all potential realities, we only get to live the one we've chosen. And it seems to me we make these choices without much information on where they'll lead or even why we are taking that path. Frost was at least making a conscious decision whilst knowing he didn't have a clue about what lay ahead.

When I look back on my life, often with a sigh, I recall that all the pain and joy were just part of the journey on the path I chose without even being aware I chose it. The why doesn't matter in the end. There's no going back and I rather doubt I'd want to even if I could.

You may (or may not) recall I wrote about this in a personal way here:

Or maybe you'd prefer Garth Brooks' take:

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end
the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I assume this review is mostly tongue in cheek, but you raise an interesting point about "diverged," forcing me to give it some thought.

Imagine yourself standing at the point where the road forks. From that point of perspective, you see two roads diverging, each from the other. I don't see the inevitable absurdity to Frost's description that you see.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...


I suppose that much depends on how to interpret the word "diverge." If it's taken to mean something like "branch off," then the implication is that two paths (phenomena, etc.) start off as one—in which case it doesn't matter where one is standing, because the objective, perspective-independent fact is that one road is becoming two.

If, however, "diverge" is taken to mean something more like "veer apart" or simply "differ" (e.g., divergent opinions), then yes, two roads can appear to diverge, based on one's perspective, and there's no contradiction in Frost's poem.

But there's still much that is nonsensical about that work.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, "about the same" is not the same as "the same," so I see no contradiction there, and the slight difference, "Because it was grassy and wanted wear," gives the reason why he "took the other" (a decision made already in the second stanza, by the way), and the fact that on both roads were "leaves no step had trodden black" is a point about that particular day on that particular morning, not a longstanding characteristic of both paths over some longer period of time.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...


"...and the fact that on both roads were "leaves no step had trodden black" is a point about that particular day on that particular morning, not a longstanding characteristic of both paths over some longer period of time."

I'm not sure how that's relevant. Obviously, he can only make his decision based on what he sees at that moment, but what he sees, if we take him literally (and I don't see why we can't take him literally), is two paths equally untrammeled. Now if that's the case, then he's contradicting what he'd said earlier (rather ambiguously) about unequal trammeling. So I still contend the poem makes no logical sense.

I suppose one could counterargue that the contradictions themselves point to the idea that we shouldn't be taking the poem literally. If that's the case, though, then why trust the poet at all? Perhaps this is a poem about lying or delusion or fantasy, and not a hortatory call to live interestingly.

Under the third stanza, I wrote:

"At this moment in the poem, the poet has made his decision as to which path to take..."

Apologies for vagueness. I realize the poet had made his decision in the second stanza, and didn't mean to imply otherwise. I should have written "By" instead of "At."

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The less worn path is judged less worn based on the the fact of being slightly more grassy, a relatively long-term condition; the untrodden leaves are a fact of that specific morning: "both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

I think I'm reading rather literally at this point.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...


I've gone back and made the "second/third-stanza" issue clearer.

As for this:

"Well, 'about the same' is not the same as 'the same,' so I see no contradiction there, and the slight difference, 'Because it was grassy and wanted wear,' gives the reason why he 'took the other'..."

So we're agreed, then, that Frost isn't being a nonconformist at all, but is displaying watered-down conformism by taking a path that is merely less traveled as opposed to being untraveled. This isn't a Thoreauvian forsaking of people for the sake of embracing nature; this is a tourist's account of his travels to a slightly less-frequented site. There's nothing "off the beaten path" about this timid adventure. If those wooded paths ("roads"?) are "worn about the same," then "grassy" really means "slightly more grassy" and "wanted wear" means "wanted wear only to a slightly higher degree."

Really, these paths aren't that different from each other in terms of degree of use, which brings me to Steve Honeywell's idea that Frost's sigh might be one of rue and not one of contentment: perhaps Frost is saying the other path would have been almost as interesting, therefore just as worthy of exploration, which makes it too bad that he didn't/couldn't take that path.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I agree with that interpretation.

At the meta-level, Frost is saying that some choices in life have to be made on little evidence of difference but that in the long run have nevertheless made all the difference.

The sigh is one of regret.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

Some folks seem to see the poem as an affirmation (or celebration) of free will. I'd agree that the poet makes his choice on the basis of little evidence, although this sounds more like an affirmation (or celebration) of faith than of free will.

An interesting question to chew over might be whether the degree of one's freedom in choosing a path is a function of one's knowledge (or foreknowledge). If the poet knew exactly what lay down both paths, and chose according to that knowledge—the knowledge of what lay ahead—would that constitute a freer choice?

Elisson said...

There has GOT to be a way to redirect this discussion to something involving feces.

Kevin Kim said...

Here comes Elisson, hijacker of threads.