Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Road Less Understood

The title to this blog alludes to one of America's most well-known and most misunderstood poems. Contrary to popular belief, the poem is not a paean to counter-culture and non-conformity, to alternate lifestyles and to getting off the beaten path. Not that those are bad things. Karpe Diem, I say, and I think Robert Frost would agree with me; getting out into nature, stopping and smelling the roses and all that hippie love stuff, or jesus love stuff if you want go back to the source, is a good thing. It's just not what the poem is about, and giving the text a careful reading and lexical analysis will show you what I mean...

In the first stanza we meet the poem's protagonist, a primal projection of the young poet, the everyman, standing in a yellow wood and faced with a choice between two paths.

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;

The first thing to note is that the traveler is already in a yellow wood. So we are already talking about a walk through the woods, not a decision to leave some urban or other lifestyle in preference for the "green" way of the backwoods.

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,

In this second stanza, the traveler decides to take the other path, describing it as "just as fair" and "perhaps" having a better claim because it is "grassy and wanted wear". Aha, you say. I told you so. It's all about taking the road less traveled, forging through uncharted territory, being different etc. etc. But the very next couplet belies this attempt to differentiate the two paths telling us that they were worn "really about the same".

At this point, the two paths have been described as "just as fair" and "about the same" with one of them "perhaps" having a "better claim". Not quite the rallying cry of the non-conformist that you'd expect, right? Well if you aren't convinced yet, the next stanza pretty much puts the metaphorical nail in the biodegradable coffin with the unequivocal description "equally lay".

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.

So far we've got a poem about a traveler standing in the woods trying to pick between to almost equally trodden paths. The traveler tries to look down the road and presumably picks the "nicer" or "better" path, but readily admits that there isn't really a discernible difference. Then the traveler sort of reluctantly chooses one, knowing that they will more than likely never go back and try the other.

At this point, the poem is starting to look a bit more nihilistic. What's the point of picking if we can't see the ends, if we can't distinguish the difference? The key comes in the final stanza, when the traveler is looking back in retrospect on their life.

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.

We now envision the traveler in some smokey and nostalgic roadside inn, no doubt with a wooden sign hanging askew over the door and an old-fashioned "Olde" in the title. The traveler is perhaps sitting in a rocking chair by the hearth, tamping out his aromatic pipe. What we know is that he or she is addressing an unseen audience. Who are they? Perhaps fellow travelers? Perhaps a circle of knock-kneed and wide-eyed children?

And what is the traveler saying? That that one decision, that one small decision between two nearly identical paths in a yellow wood has made all the difference. Basically the traveler is attributing a great importance to a decision that at the time was almost a flip of a coin. And this is what the poem is really about, the unreliability of memory and man's helplessness in the events of life.

The traveler believes that a choice between two indistinguishable paths was a key turning point in their life. The way they remember it, that one choice made all the difference. Maybe they don't really remember how the paths were basically the same, or maybe they have an elevated opinion of their abilities and believe that even in this minutest of moments they were charging towards self-made greatness.

It kind of depends on how you read the "sigh". Is it a sigh of regret and loss or puritanical pride in a job well done? Has the traveler become a prince or a pauper in the years following that fateful frolick in the forest? We are clearly in the presence of nostalgia, but is it a nostalgia born of myopia or hubris? Is man to believe that he is the master of his fate and that decisions, even admittedly haphazard ones like the choice between following two equally trodden paths, make a difference? Or is this a lesson on the unreliability of memory and man's tendency, or perhaps need, to attribute agency and meaning to the chaos and randomness of life?

Whether you believe in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or the inexorable wheel of fate winding out your life, the song remains the same. Frost is reminding us that each moment is precious and rarely can be saved for another day. And that as the shadows lengthen and fall upon us, we will perforce look back at the rise and fall of our days and know with certainty that our lives are precisely as they are and could be no other way. Otherwise they would not be ours to remember. We will have the choice to look back and sigh with joy or regret for the paths we chose and never chose to take, and together these will be the paths of our life lying just so, diverging in the woods of our soul. And we can be sure that the paths we trod have made all the difference, because our dusty and fading footprints are no doubt the legacy we leave behind to those who follow...

One final point about how memory diverges from life (like two roads in a wood) and how, willfully or not, this leads us to misunderstand: the Robert Frost poem is titled The Road Not Taken, not as most people will remember The Road Less Traveled. And that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, not only makes all the difference, but is exactly what he's talking about.