Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In a Yellow Wood

English teachers and guidance counselors like to pin up posters of a glossy Autumn wood with Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken blazoned across it in their classrooms and cozy tell-me-all-your-angsty-teenage-problems-and-I’ll-give-you-a-pass-out-of-gym-class offices. They gaze adoringly up at it and find solace, direction; and they want us to do the same. What they forget though, what most of us forget, is everything but the concluding lines of the poem.

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference

We remember that the narrator tells us that taking the road less traveled “has made all the difference” but we tend to forget that Frost never tells us exactly what that difference was.

All through my youth this poem was held up as a standard for going your own way, for making choices that few others have made before. Frost is telling us to take the road less traveled. Or is he? Few people point to the first line of the last stanza when trying to rally you to the cause of the individual.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

If this is really the instructional, inspirational poem that we have been led to believe why is he telling us this with a sigh? Is the narrator really doling out advice or is he simply an old man reexamining the choices that he has made wondering what if?

I’ve been bludgeoned with those last two lines of the poem so many times that for the longest time I thought the poem was called The Road Less Traveled. But it’s not, is it? It’s The Road Not Taken. Two more often neglected lines are the last two lines of the second stanza

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same

About the same! The poem doesn’t give us a narrator confronted with a choice between the trodden way of the majority or the hard going yet righteous plight of the individual; the right path or the wrong path; a path of thorns or a path of flowers; a path of darkness or a path of light. By the time we get to the end of the poem we seem to forget that the road the narrator chose was really only slightly less traveled than the other.

Now, I’m not saying that the narrator regrets his choice, but what I am saying is that the choice wasn’t as simple as we are often led to believe, nor was it simple to live with. As good or as bad as “the difference” was, the narrator can’t help but wonder what his life would have been had he taken the other, “just as fair” road. Because more often than not life isn’t a straightforward series of choosing right over wrong or even the lesser of two evils, but of trying to figure out which, among a host of choices “just as fair” as the next, is the one you should make. And, more often than not, the deciding factor is as arbitrary as flipping a coin or there being slightly more grass on path A than path B. And we never know what the difference is going to be until after the road has been taken.

I get inspiration and instruction from The Road Not Taken but not in the way that I have been told that I should. To me this poem isn’t about either road; it’s about the traveler. It’s about making a decision, any decision. Because no matter which road you choose or how long you take in choosing there is always going to be a wistful part of you that will look back and wonder what if? It’s human nature to want to go back to that yellow wood and take the other road just to see what there is to see. We’re always going to be curious, we’re always going to have regrets. The important thing is not to get stuck in the crossroads.

The Road Not Taken

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.

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.

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