“the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s cloth”
September 12, 2015 7:13 PM   Subscribe

The Most Misread Poem in America by David Orr [The Paris Review]
“And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. [...] Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.”
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;
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 wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
posted by Fizz (71 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Shocking. Next thing you will be telling us that we are not all unique snowflakes.
posted by greenhornet at 7:26 PM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


That the "two roads are interchangeable" is how I was taught the poem in 1993 (when I was an undergraduate). So Orr's less travelled interpretation is almost as well travelled as the common interpretation. Both have about the same amount of leaves these days.
posted by josephtate at 7:27 PM on September 12, 2015 [30 favorites]


yeah, A&P is what you're looking for if you want to see a real fork-in-the-life.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:29 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get where the common misinterpretation occurs, but ever since I was first told to "look at it more closely" (I forget by whom, but I thank them), and I realized that the narrator saw the two paths as essentially equal at the time, therefore he couldn't have realized he "took the one less traveled by" until well after he made his choice, thereby his choice was purely random and not really HIS choice, just happenstance that he ended up on "the one less traveled by". So his "Road Not Taken" was the one more often taken. So what. So flip a coin, it's all the same, except it isn't and it's not up to you. And then I realized a few 'non-decisions' in my life that "made all the difference" and THEN the poem felt real to me.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:31 PM on September 12, 2015 [25 favorites]


If this narrator is unreliable, then there's a slight problem with assuming the "less travelled" bit is the inaccuracy. This is a narrator, it seems like, trying to find a narrative for a choice that was made. I went to law school. I decided not to be a lawyer. Depending on mood, I tell myself I'm doing just as well as I would be if I'd taken the bar. I tell myself I'm going to be way better off and the people who took the bar are suckers. I tell myself it was a mistake and surely I'm going to regret it. I think all those things without the facts of what happened having changed at all. The part I find most interesting is that the choice made "has made all the difference", but even though that's the part everybody knows, everybody thinks this means he made the right choice. Even the sigh's no help. Happy? Sad?

There's no way at all to know the facts of what choice was made, whether it was the right one or the wrong one, whether it actually had any impact at all, from the poem. Which makes it still just as good to project your own life onto as the TV commercial version, and that's what I find most interesting about this.

(But I still prefer Eliot.)
posted by Sequence at 7:32 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, y'all might not want to read the comments on this over at hacker news.
posted by lkc at 7:35 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


well, the hacker news community as a group tend to believe they're taking "the one less traveled by", even (especially) when they're all traveling in the exact same direction (frequently crowded into an Uber).
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:40 PM on September 12, 2015 [27 favorites]


I wrote a whole commencement speech about this general idea.
You all didn’t come to Goddard, to do “individualized studies” because you wanted to take the obvious or simple or pre-determined path. People in Vermont really like to quote Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken poem without maybe understanding that, as Frost himself put it

“It was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life.”
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 PM on September 12, 2015 [31 favorites]


Someone pls actually read the book. That the poem is frequently misunderstood is a STARTING POINT, not the main idea. In fact, Orr thinks the popular "misreading" is very intentionally put there by Frost, and probably not quite as jest. It's an interesting book, about the poem, Frost himself, and the centrality of the idea of choice to American life.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:56 PM on September 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'm almost 100 percent certain that this was the only poem we read in school, at least through the eighth grade. In high school I think there might have been a couple more, but nothing that I can recall specifically.

I wouldn't be surprised if many people had a similar educational experience, with poetry limited to one or two poems, and with only the most cursory readings of those. Reading it now, it's a very sly poem, and a lot more interesting than the way it was taught to me in school.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:08 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


So what you're telling me here is there's a level to Frost's signature poem that's actually subversively POMO, and deliberately eludes a non-ambiguous interpretation? And he manages to do all this while using diction and imagery that misdirects readers into reading it as some bit of simplistic, pastoral doggerel on the distinctly American virtues of self-determination and originality? Damn. That is really some next-level shit right there. Like having some overlooked detail in a Thomas Kincade painting pointed out to you that suddenly reveals all his paintings to be slyly brilliant critiques of capitalism. I'm always impressed by how many layers of meaning these sorts of time-honored works of literature turn out to have on careful rereading. I'm seriously impressed, and I've always been lukewarm on Frost in the past.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


I really, really dislike this poem. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is poetry for people who don't understand poetry in the same way that Kinkade is painting for people who don't understand painting. I am aware this is immensely unfair to Frost. But it's how my knee jerks none the less.

But I still maintain that using it as many student's introduction to real poetry (as often happens) is a good way to make sure they never progress to an appreciation of poetry.
posted by Justinian at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Your favourite band, er, poet sucks.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


Next you're going to tell me it was actually only a couple of hundred yards to go before he slept?
posted by not_on_display at 8:31 PM on September 12, 2015 [27 favorites]


Being from Michigan, where we pick a lot of apples in the fall, I've always been partial to After Apple Picking.
posted by Roger Dodger at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hey, I was speaking to this one poem not Frost in general.

So it's more like "Your favourite poem sucks" not "poet". Though I've never encountered anyone for whom this is the favorite poem. Unless they can't name any other poems.
posted by Justinian at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2015


I think it's an admission of humility on the part of the poet; he took the road that turned out to be less-traveled-by, and he ended up being Robert Fucking Frost, but he can't really take credit for that. Try to get that admission out of just about any big-name artist that you can think of. Would Thomas Kincade have said that in life?
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've never heard anybody who knew anything interpret the poem as anything other than a lament about the impossibility of taking both paths, of the finitude of life and the permanence of our choices.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:36 PM on September 12, 2015 [18 favorites]


According to one of the characters in "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray, the poem is actually about anal sex, so everyone else is wrong.
posted by holborne at 8:37 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


as well as lending its name to at least one video game, Spry Fox’s Road Not Taken (“a rogue-like puzzle game about surviving life’s surprises”)

This game is really good, and while I first groaned at the title it's smarter than it looks at first.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 8:37 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


This Is Just To Say

I have flagged
the comments
that were in
the blue

and which
you were probably
saving
for favourites

Forgive me
they were fantastic
so meta
and so filter
posted by Fizz at 8:38 PM on September 12, 2015 [32 favorites]


He didn't take the road less traveled by. He took the easy, grassy, attractive road. He avoided the way that disappeared into the undergrowth. Later, far into the future, when he is relating this tale, he will relate it as he took the hard, less traveled road. And that has made him what he was.

It is a comment on how we view our past and how that compares to reality.
posted by Roger Dodger at 8:39 PM on September 12, 2015 [11 favorites]


Orr interview on the PBS Newshour.

My grandmother would drive by Frosts house when he stayed in Ann Arbor. Apparently, he fetched his own newspaper and his lawn was a bit shaggy. His eyebrows seemed to always be ahead of him whist walking about hoisting suspenders with grey piping.
posted by clavdivs at 8:42 PM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think the important question is, did you visualize him going left, or right?
posted by yath at 8:50 PM on September 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


That the "two roads are interchangeable" is how I was taught the poem in 1993

Me too; same year, too. I think it's important to pay attention to Jessamyn's read and supporting documentation. Yes, you can question whether the two were "about the same," but anyone who hikes knows that a grassy path isn't necessarily easier - it's just one that hasn't been used in a while. Grass doesn't grow on paths that get used every day - it gets trampled down. It's a sign that it's been a while since numbers of people passed there. It's possible for it to be worn "about the same," over time, and just not traveled by many people recently. Yet, in human history, it has ultimately been traveled a lot, and isn't some radical departure from a legitimate human path, but one that calls to people who might be made curious by something that doesn't seem to have been as mainstream as lately. I think you do have to read the poem down to the "about the same" layer, and then beyond that layer, because it's not a gotcha poem. There is something being said, and it's not meaningless. Any choice makes "all the difference," but even choices that make other people uneasy or seem weird in relation to contemporary mores are not bushwhacking, in human endeavor terms. Important that the choice, even if relatively even, is authentic.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is another poem that reads a lot like picturesque doggerel, until you spend time with it. "Fire and Ice" and "Nothing Gold Can Stay" are similar. He was kind of a master at moving subtly in familiar tropes.

My favorite class in college was a Dickinson and Frost seminar. A whole semster on those two, and we went to visit their houses and had our last class by a west-running brook. It's really where I learned to close-read and I remember it so fondly, in the chilly, melty, frosty winter/late-spring of 1993, as we were saber-rattling with Kuwait.
posted by Miko at 9:16 PM on September 12, 2015 [14 favorites]


I think it's an admission of humility on the part of the poet; he took the road that turned out to be less-traveled-by, and he ended up being Robert Fucking Frost, but he can't really take credit for that

That's the thing though, Halloween Jack: The poem literally says both roads were travelled equally--but that the narrator will later claim he took the one that was less travelled (even though that's a lie) and will claim that's what "made all the difference." The narrator's admitting he's going to lie and claim he deliberately took the less travelled road as a conceit. I don't know how I never noticed it before. Couldn't get past the simplicity on the surface I guess. I vaguely knew Frost was the real deal, but didn't realize this one was so sneaky and subversive.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:17 PM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


What got me to revisit and actually give the time to poems of Frost's like "The Road Not Taken" was reading "Directive." Holy shit but that poem leveled me when I first came across it.

That said, I labored under the common misconception about this poem only because of cultural osmosis. When I actually sat down and read the damn thing, the rationalization on display was pretty damn obvious.
posted by invitapriore at 9:28 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The Road Not Taken" works out to be a pretty spot-on commentary on the sort of people who quote "The Road Not Taken", which is a neat trick if nothing else.
posted by ckape at 9:33 PM on September 12, 2015 [23 favorites]


One of them has "the better claim" and is more "grassy." That is a difference worth thinking about.

I'd say resist the common interpretation, whether it's the general common interpretation, or the oppositional/rebel common interpretation. Neither is really going to lead to an independent perspective - there's a certain irony in saying "Oh, now I know what this poem is really about, the arbitrariness of choice and inescapability of mediocrity, because someone pointed it out to me," which is just a revised version of "This poem is about independence and daring, because someone pointed that out to me."

You can spend hours debating what is meant in this poem, and Frost lays the tools right out there.

It seems that the "rather private jest" also refers to the sigh in the poem, not the whole poem. Context for that.
posted by Miko at 9:38 PM on September 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


I saw it on the blue,
Hackers did not have a clue,
Of course,
My interpretation holds water.
I'm intimately familiar with Frost.
posted by smidgen at 9:41 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


I agree with much of the essay, but the claim that "The two roads are interchangeable" is mistaken -- it's falling for a rationalization the narrator is attempting to make, but not entirely successfully. The paths are perhaps equally fair, but one is grassy while the other has less grass and heads into the undergrowth. When he then writes "Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same," it's partially mocking his earlier self, who rationalized the grassy path as needing wearing, whereas he now claims they were worn the same and his earlier self really chose the grassy one because it was nicer and without undergrowth. But the leaves only show that neither path had been used that day, and obscure the actual levels of wear hidden beneath. You don't say "really about" when you are certain -- if you're sure two cars are the same, you simply say so; if you're trying to convince yourself the cheaper one is as good as the more expensive one, you say they're "really about the same." He is trying to convince himself they were actually the same, and that the decision at the time was essentially arbitrary, and any difference it made couldn't be blamed on his earlier self. But that too is rationalization -- a few leaves thrown down to obscure the truth, which is that he chose the path because it was nicer, grassier, less brambly, but it did make all the difference, and in fact was less traveled. This is a terribly regretful poem, regretful of that decision or having had to make a decision at all, because the decision has caused him serious problems. Frost was already at this point a pretty unhappy man, and as such would like to believe he couldn't have done otherwise, and that (like Orr) there was no difference. But there was a difference, he did take the grassier, less-traveled path, and it led to a pretty depressed life, and he fears more such in the future (correctly, as it turns out). Orr is right that the poem is not a celebration of difference leading to success; rather, it is a lament of that path, and an effort to convince oneself that there was no difference to have been made -- a failed effort.
posted by chortly at 9:43 PM on September 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


Now that I'm revisiting all the stuff on this, he also says lot here and there about how this was written for a friend, Edward Thomas, who was always troubled with regret (what I have heard on MeFi called a "regret monkey") and particularly struggled with the issue of going to war. Considered that way, there's an entirely 'nother dimension, a really personal, pointed, intimate one from a friend to a friend, that loses some ooomph when generalized. You can tease yourself endlessly about what to do, which way to go. Frost clearly set himself apart as not the "regretful" type (he was way too flinty), but needled his friend about being the indecisive waffler:
Guardian: 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.
posted by Miko at 9:50 PM on September 12, 2015 [19 favorites]


To me, it's pretty telling the tense shifts to the future when the narrator talks about what he will say later. He admits he will claim he knew, unambiguously, that he took the less travelled road. But in the present tense, it's much less clear which road that is.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:54 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


The path with brambles is the less-traveled. The path along the clear grassy ridge is more traveled. That is the nature of paths. The clear, easy path is more traveled. Travelers clear paths. The more travelled the more clear.

The more-traveled path generally gets to a destination, not an experience. The less-tracked gets to an experience. An adventure, lesson, or knowledge. Not just a mere place.

He'll claim to have gone off the beaten path, though the truth is he stuck to the main. Because people like speak of their adventures, not their boring commute.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:28 PM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Reading Miko's passage, I suspect Frost didn't like traipsing around in the brambles looking for birds, and was quite satisfied seeing them from well-worn paths. I tend to agree: underbrush is not fun.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:33 PM on September 12, 2015


If a writer knew that half the art lies in interpretation of their work, they might include some ambiguity as a small source of private satisfaction.
posted by walrus at 12:00 AM on September 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Many of us are "low information voters" when we're faced with (what turns out to be) a "turning point" decision.* We have a powerful need to make our life's journey rational, repeatable; we often re-interpret essentially random past actions as intentional decisions that led us to where we are today (for better and worse).

To the narrator of the poem, in the moment, either path is a fine choice. Odds are the path was chosen quickly, thoughtlessly, without the careful examination and rationalization recalled ages and ages hence. That later narrator is loathe to ascribe the arc their life took to little more than a coin flip.

A flipped coin has no agency. For those examining the story of our life--perhaps for advice, to give plaudits, or to lay blame--the flip can't be reliably imitated, nor the call of "heads" or "tails" praised or berated in any coherent way. Frost's poem describes how we edit the flip of a coin into a narrative which satisfies the audience of our life story.

* Usually identified as such only when viewed from a point much later in life.
posted by maxwelton at 12:04 AM on September 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


>If a writer knew that half the art lies in interpretation of their work, they might include some ambiguity as a small source of private satisfaction.

This, a thousand times, this. Especially Frost. Especially. I never liked him until I had class with Larry Raab, who revels in that ambiguity and the possibilities and provocations it sanctions.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:23 AM on September 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think the important question is, did you visualize him going left, or right?

I've always wondered whether if the road less traveled turned out to be a conveyor belt and he was going fast enough he could achieve takeoff, myself.
posted by No-sword at 12:32 AM on September 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Two roads diverged in a wood, but I
have GPS, so np, guy.
- Jason Frost

Two roads diverged in a wood, and we
Should have taken the other, apparently.
- Chuck and Linda Frostbite

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
Know who owns them both: a wealthy guy
Who'll have no clue that I stopped here
To piss when coming home from beer.
- Robert Froth
posted by pracowity at 12:47 AM on September 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion

How odd. I'm not the most astute reader of poetry, but it has never occurred to me to read TRNT like this.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:08 AM on September 13, 2015


Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion

How odd. I'm not the most astute reader of poetry, but it has never occurred to me to read TRNT like this.


If you haven't read the poem since grade 7 and only remember "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference", it's a not unreasonable reading of that one line.
posted by jeather at 6:20 AM on September 13, 2015


I blame M. Scott Peck.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:37 AM on September 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thing is, the poem isn't actually about quality or specifics of the roads or metaphorically the paths we have or have not taken in life. It's about the melancholy we feel later in life about having been forced to make a choice. The un-taken choice will always haunt us. It doesn't matter if we took the better or worse path; the fact that we cannot know what has not happened is a source of a kind of grief. In modern days some of us educated folks sort of console ourselves with the theory of parallel universes and the possibility some version of us has taken every path in the woods of life. Still, the grief remains, and more instances of significant choices made and the trailing unknowns of the other path accumulate as we grow older and older.
posted by aught at 7:17 AM on September 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


If you're making a listicle, the next most misread would be the use of Beckett's “Fail better” line from Worstward Ho.

(if you need to cherry-pick a line from that poem as a rejoinder to the chirpy types who recite Fail Better as their brittle success mantra, I find a deep nod, then a sincere eye-lock while intoning ‘Head sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes …’ helps me to be left the fuck alone again.)
posted by scruss at 7:50 AM on September 13, 2015 [9 favorites]


All Robert Frost threads are an excuse to share my favorite Frost poem:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:03 AM on September 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


I go hiking sometimes with my friend Lester, who is really good at picking the best trails. He puts a stack of rocks to indicate which way to go in the trails. Sometimes, when I'm hiking by myself, I'll come to a split in the trail, and there's a stack of rocks by one of the paths. And I always choose that one, because that's the one Les travelled by.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:56 AM on September 13, 2015 [25 favorites]


The point really being made can best be uncovered if you approach the poem as if you're a computer programmer who's read too much Kant. To wit:

First, understand that acting ethically means acting such that one's actions can become a universal maxim. Given this, consider the case where the narrator takes the road more travelled. what happens if "take the road more traveled" becomes a universal maxim? In that case, an imperceptibly small difference in load between the two roads will inevitably become magnified; first one person chooses the road more traveled, making that road even more traveled, making others who have adopted the maxim "take the road more traveled" more likely to travel that road, and so on and so on until one road receives all the traffic and the other is completely neglected.

On the other hand, consider the case wherein the narrator chooses to take the road less travelled. If this becomes a universal maxim, each road will tend to receive the same amount of traffic; should one road start seeming more traveled, travelers will tend to take the other road until that road is the more traveled one. The loads carried by the two processors roads will tend toward equality rather than radical imbalance.

This effect, incidentally, is why I set my Facebook feed to "most recent" instead of "top stories." It's also why I'm a socialist — we need a system wherein money tends to take the road less travelled, instead of the current system wherein money tends to see the paths/people to whom money has already flowed.

Man, I hate it when even I can't tell whether or not I'm joking anymore.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:18 AM on September 13, 2015 [11 favorites]


Next you're going to tell me it was actually only a couple of hundred yards to go before he slept?
posted by not_on_display at 8:31 PM on September 12 [13 favorites +] [!]


Half a league, actually.
posted by chavenet at 9:49 AM on September 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick, I've often thought along those lines, but the problem with that maxim in this case is that we generally would like less burden on nature, so it's better to reduce the number of trails by taking the well-traveled one, rather than further erode things by taking the less. The problem is that all it takes is a few people to bushwack, and then every Kantian hiker would feel the need to turn that "trail" into a worn path. So my own Kantian maxim is almost the opposite these days: either take the well-worn trail, or go some direction that looks entirely unworn; but if a path looks like it's just getting started or is faint, avoid it. If everyone adopts this view, then the number of paths won't grow, and you are free to cut across a lawn or through the brush without fear of the "keep off the lawn because if everyone does it it will burn a path" logic.
posted by chortly at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


23skidoo wins the thread.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:57 AM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


that's an excellent point. there is a categorical difference between things like paths in a wood and things like Facebook likes or money. I've got this very boyish tendency, I think, to overlook the nature of the trees by getting obsessed with the pattern of the woods.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:27 AM on September 13, 2015


Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion.

I don't know about that. I think it's as common for people to regretfully refer to "the road not taken" as is it is for them to make self-congratulatory references to "the road less traveled."

The sigh and the title sound a lot more like regret than triumph to me.
posted by Redstart at 12:09 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


We never formally studied this poem, but in 7th grade Mrs. Carruthers had our class choose a Meaningful Quote and illustrate it on a poster. Almost a quarter of the class chose the last three lines of “The Road Not Taken,” and every one of their posters used identical imagery: one road with a lot of unhappy people, and a second, smaller road with the artist smiling at the end, next to a huge house and car and surrounded by lots of dollar signs.

The quote I chose was “time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Mrs. Carruthers did not hang my poster on the wall.
posted by nicepersonality at 1:51 PM on September 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


The quote I chose was “time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Mrs. Carruthers did not hang my poster on the wall.

And that has made all the difference.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:45 PM on September 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


I lost a lot of respect for Kant when I got to the part of the first Critique (that's how you should always say it, with an air of mysterious superiority!) where he says that morality doesn't make sense without the idea of rewards and punishments in a future life.
posted by thelonius at 2:58 PM on September 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


And that has made all the difference.

I picture Mrs. Carruthers on her deathbed, her gathered loved ones frustrated that the latest poster featuring bananas is still "not the right one".
posted by maxwelton at 3:03 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


If it meant what it said, it would not be an interesting poem.
A poem is not an elephant, after all.

(Referencing Horton, in case that is not clear.)
posted by SLC Mom at 4:35 PM on September 13, 2015


I went to post my favorite Frost poem, but I wonder, what are all of yours? I'm partial to a bunch, but I was going to offer Acquainted with the Night, or Two Tramps in Mud-Time. Every year there is a mid-spring day I wait for that is the exact replica of the day in Two Tramps in Mud-Time:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

There is a lot of good stuff in his superlong poems but I feel like that's a form that is not surviving modernity well. For instance, not Frost, but last winter I started reading Whittier's Snowbound, which is completely awesome, but after the first hundred lines i started to wear out. You need to commit to stuff that long, to take it and sit down in a chair and stay put and give it a good half hour to hour.

Last summer I got married on this New Hampshire farm, and the deal with the farm came with this 24/7 handyman, Seth. HE was a bit of a cipher at first, quiet, kind, reticent, skeptical, cigarette-smoking, in heavy metal t-shirts, but he busted ass the whole week to spruce the place up and capably, unfussily, humbly, do whatever we needed. Eventually I realized he was the type of person Frost wrote about, the modern-day equivalent of Frost's hired hand.
posted by Miko at 9:10 PM on September 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd not paid much attention to this poem either, other than noticing it in passing as a piece of Americana. But it's pretty clear now that it's about justifying decisions made, years or decades afterwards, in order to give those decisions a meaning that they perhaps didn't have in the moment. Mocking the general sentiment of "everything happens for a reason," and so on.

Thanks for the post, Fizz!
posted by Ragini at 11:04 PM on September 13, 2015


It's about the melancholy we feel later in life about having been forced to make a choice. The un-taken choice will always haunt us.

aught, that's the same mood I got from the poem, you put it very beautifully.
Thre's this poem by Derek Mahon, "Leaves", that always stuck in my mind since first coming across it way back in a course on Northern Irish poetry, it sounds almost like a bleaker and clearer version of the same idea in Frost's poem, I always liked the image of the stadium filled with leaves:

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:59 AM on September 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just remembered that among its other crimes Dead Poets Society completely misinterprets The Road Not Taken because of course it does.
posted by kersplunk at 3:50 AM on September 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm afraid I'm in Team Carruthers; sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Or, as Shakespeare wrote, "Drosophila are gross, Ophelia".
posted by Chitownfats at 4:14 AM on September 14, 2015


Just popped in to post the fantastic Guardian link Miko posted above, about Edward Thomas. I have to wonder if that's the answer to Frost's question to Louis Untermeyer in the OP: "'I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,' he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer." Also, I'm still surprised how seldom anyone---including Orr in the OP---points out that the poem is named after the road the narrator didn't take---the one he "kept ... for another day!" Seems that might be relevant in trying to figure out what the poem is about.
posted by dilettanti at 8:13 AM on September 14, 2015


I'm afraid I'm in Team Carruthers; sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.

In my defense, I was in seventh grade; puberty was the lowest form of wit.
posted by nicepersonality at 11:16 AM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


This has been an interesting discussion to read. Poetry was never really my forte, but my ENGL 300 level classes often used Frost as an introduction to reading poetry for depth, so I've always has a soft spot for him.

RE: my favorite Frost poem, I've always liked Design:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

posted by codacorolla at 11:28 AM on September 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think it really matters which path the reader or the writer chose, in terms of whether it was more or less travelled. Once the choice is made, the probability wave function collapses, so. *shrugs*

I mean, then again, I do like the Copenhagen interpretation more than Many Worlds.
posted by qcubed at 5:38 PM on September 14, 2015


nicepersonality: Ahh, I was just kidding. I like it when kids are clever. I myself only started getting clever at around 38, 39. It's, umm, a process.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:12 PM on September 14, 2015


"One of them has "the better claim" and is more "grassy." That is a difference worth thinking about."

HE WAS GETTIN HIGH IN THE WOODS

POEM SOLVED
posted by klangklangston at 11:55 AM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


12:31
Cool underpass
Pink chaffon
Weaved Cacophony
Dal-Tex
Crossed notation in Earl Warrens diary.

Right turns.
posted by clavdivs at 12:12 AM on September 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


This thread rawks
posted by clavdivs at 12:12 AM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


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