By Karl Smallwood
Robert Frost is one of the most critically acclaimed American poets of the 20th century, which is a roundabout way of saying you almost certainly studied one of his poems in school. Most likely, it was a short piece called The Road Not Taken- a poem famous for being one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted poems ever written, and a testament to how twisted the meaning of something can be by taking a quote out of context. Oh, and it also played a small role in the death of the guy it was written about.
To begin with, the part of the poem most everyone is intimately familiar is the last three lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
From this, and this alone, it would seem the protagonist of the poem took the road less traveled by and this positively benefited his life over taking the more commonly trodden path…
While poems can have many different meanings to different people, and certainly parts of this particular poem are very much open to interpretation, what cannot be denied is that the central character of this poem unequivocally does not actually take the road “less traveled”.
You see, while it may come as a shock to those of us that had a habit of occasionally nodding off in school, the poem has more than just three lines, and the true meaning of (most of) it is fairly obvious if you just read the entire thing all the way through.
To wit, the protagonist of the poem goes out of his way to make it clear that the two paths are virtually identical- neither is more traveled than the other.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
From this, you might actually think one was less trodden, except for the next line when the traveler explains he was really just casting about trying to find some reason to take one road or the other in the previous lines and that in truth the roads seemed equally traveled:
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.
Of course, one can’t just stand around in a wood all day, so a choice must be made. With no reason to choose one road over the other, the traveler takes one, then consoles himself that he will simply come back another time and see where the other road goes… before admitting that in this thought he was really just trying to fool himself once again, as he had tried to do previously by attempting to convince himself one path was less traveled than the other:
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
In the end, he states the most famous part of this poem, though including two key lines that are generally omitted when people are quoting the last stanza of this piece:
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.
So, in the end, while he was very clear in the present that the two roads were identical with no real reason to take one over the other, later in life he knew he’d once again fool himself, this time successfully, by instead remembering that one road was “less traveled by” and that this influenced his decision, when in fact he really decided on a whim.
Of course, it isn’t wholly clear at this point whether in “ages and ages hence” he is sighing and noting “that has made all the difference” out of contentment- that his reasoning was sound and that he made the correct choice- or regret, that he’d not been able to see where the other path went, perhaps to a better place than the one he chose on that fateful day.
It is generally thought that the latter, “regret”, notion is the “correct” interpretation, at least as far as the original intent of the author. Perhaps speculatively backing this up is the fact that the poem is called “The Road Not Taken”, rather than “The Road Less Traveled”, priming the reader to focus on the former, rather than the latter.
But is there any actual evidence to support one interpretation over the other, at least as far as Frost was intending when he wrote it (if he had any real intent at all)?
Frost would later state of the poem, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky” (Letters xiv-xv). Frost also called the poem his “private jest“. You see, Frost was well aware that people would misunderstand “The Road Not Taken”. He experienced this fact when he first began sharing it, with everyone taking the poem “pretty seriously”, as he noted after reading it to a group of college students. He also later stated this was despite the fact that he had been “doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling … Mea culpa.”
To delve further into the mystery, we must look into the interesting origin of the poem.
According to Frost, the poem was about his very close friend Edward Thomas, a fellow writer and (eventual) poet in his last years who Frost got to know very well during his time in England in the early 20th century. Frost later noted in a letter he wrote to Amy Lowell that “the closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas”.
During their time together, Frost and Thomas took to frequently taking “talks–walking”- walks through the English countryside to look for wild flowers and spot birds, and most importantly discuss all manner of topics from politics and the war, to poetry and their wives, and everything in between.
Frost later noted that during their random walking about, frequently a choice had to be made over which path to take. Inevitably one would be chosen for one reason or another and after their walks, Thomas would sometimes kick himself for not taking the other path if their walk failed to result in the sighting of anything interesting. This ultimately caused Frost to quip that Thomas was
a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.
When he returned to America, Frost penned the poem as a friendly, humorous jab about Thomas’ indecisiveness, sending an early draft to Thomas titled, “Two Roads” in the early summer of 1915.
Thomas reportedly misinterpreted it. Frost then explained the poem’s actual meaning, even going so far as saying that “the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing”. In response, Thomas noted that he felt that Frost had “carried himself and his ironies too subtly” and 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.
Nonetheless, the poem had an effect on Thomas and not long after reading it, as you’ll soon see, he decided to enlist in the army.
This is something of a surprise move as Thomas was not noted for being particularly patriotic, at least in terms of caring one way or the other about the politics of the conflict resulting in WWI. (See: What Really Started WWI) Indeed, he was noted as being an anti-nationalist who despised the propaganda and blatant racism against Germans being thrown about in the British media at the time. He even went so far as to state that his real countrymen were not Englishmen, but the birds.
However, during the pairs’ walks, two things occurred to begin making Thomas seriously consider what he’d do if the war was brought to him. Would he flee for safer shores, or stand and defend his country?
One of the events occurred shortly after the start of WWI. Thomas noted in his journal,
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…
He later noted, “Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape”.
So while up to this point he had been indifferent to the politics behind the war, he now began to consider that it really didn’t matter what the war was being fought over; if the land and all that was on it was directly threatened, it needed defending if it was to be preserved.
The second event that influenced his decision was something he often lamented after in letters. This concerned a matter of what he perceived to be cowardice on his part, though most of us might consider that he was being the only reasonable one in the ordeal.
During one of Frost and Thomas’ walks in later 1914, they were confronted with a shotgun wielding gamekeeper who told them to leave the area. Frost felt he was fully in his rights to walk the land in question and wasn’t inclined to bugger off, never mind the gun pointed at him. Frost even nearly decided to bring his fists to the gun fight, but put them down after observing Thomas backing away as Frost was escalating the situation.
A few more choice words later and the pair parted ways with the gamekeeper. But this wasn’t the end of it.
Frost decided to go find the gamekeeper’s home, and after banging on the door, the gamekeeper answered. At this point, Frost, no doubt using eloquence befitting a wordsmith of his stature, told the gamekeeper off once again, explaining what would happen if said gamekeeper ever chose to threaten the pair again while they walked.
With that said, Frost and Thomas turned to leave. As they were leaving, the gamekeeper grabbed his shotgun and chose his first target as Thomas. Once again, Thomas, reasonably, reacted by trying to exit the situation rapidly without provoking the person who had a gun trained on him.
In the end, the pair left unharmed. However, Thomas couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that his friend had not backed down to a shotgun in his face, while he himself reacted the opposite. He became woefully ashamed of what he perceived as his cowardice in the matter. It also wasn’t lost on him that at that very moment some of his other friends were off demonstrating their bravery fighting in the war while he was safe at home.
Frost later attributed this feeling Thomas had of his perceived cowardice as the core reason he went to war. Essentially, Frost felt Thomas wanted a do-over and was making another attempt at testing his mettle, this time in France.
This brings us back to the poem and the decision Thomas had been long agonizing over. He had strong thoughts of emigrating to America to come live near Frost, stating, “I am thinking about America as my only chance (apart from Paradise)”, but that he also felt drawn to the war: “Frankly I do not want to go, but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless”.
Then the poem arrived on his doorstep in the early summer of 1915.
And so it was that shortly thereafter in early July of that year, he wrote to Frost telling him of his final decision on which road he’d take: “Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America… But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me”.
Today, the poem and its thought provoking lines are generally regarded as being the “final straw” that made Thomas decide to stop brooding over what to do and finally pick a road- finding his courage and enlisting. This came as a surprise to virtually everyone in Thomas’ life due to the fact he was a 37 year old married father of three who, as noted, was staunchly anti-nationalist and otherwise was not required to enlist.
The decision cost him his life.
On April 9, 1917 during the battle of Arras in France, he was shot in the chest and killed- a death that was seemingly premature. Of course, had he taken the other road, perhaps instead of a bullet through his chest, he may have met with a watery grave if his ship to the states had been sunk. Or perhaps he would have spent many years writing incredible poetry that was the hallmark of the last couple years of his life- happily living and working next to his great friend, Robert Frost.
Featured image credits: Unsplash
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