Monday, October 20, 2008

HC on Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'

The Road Not Taken

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
But 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.

-- Robert Frost

I dusted off this old chestnut recently for a sad occasion (the unveiling of our uncle’s gravestone) and my brother asked me to do a bit about it for his blog, so why not? It’s a sweet little fall poem, and what else do I have to do, as Frost might say, but sleep? I’ll take the lines in order.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. A pure premise, simply stated and strong enough to propel twenty lines. It makes us think about the word diverge and its root, which is from the Latin vergere, to bend or incline – an etymology that Frost will bring back (to his poem and to good old English) in the last line of the stanza with the verb bend, which is almost straight from the Old English bindan, to bind or fetter, which is what the whole poem is about (fetters of time and choice and causality) – but enough dictionary games. The next line beckons: And sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler. The concreteness of the dilemma is stated with Zen-like symmetry across the line break (travel both / one traveler), and it conveys an unspoken ethical axiom -- self-splitting is unthinkable -- by (quietly, negatively) questioning it: How nice it would be to have two selves, and to send one down each road. How nice it would be to rewind history. Alas, we have to keep moving. But not before standing long, a word that sounds the way it means, and which Frost drives home rhythmically by allowing himself a rare and almost quaint (in its literariness) inversion of adverb and verb – long I stood. The next line – and looked down one as far as I could – is the least remarkable of the stanza, which is perhaps appropriate to the rhyme scheme (ABAAB), for it is that line, the fourth, that is the repetitive or “extra” one. I’ve already said something about the last line, but I’ll add that undergrowth has nice associations of unwanted complication and impediment.

The next stanza moves forward abruptly, almost brutally: Then took the other as just as fair. We wish the poem would stand longer, but this is not a speaker to worry decisions, especially such a small one (the direction of a walk), as we learn further in the rest of the stanza, in which the rationale of the choice, which was uncertain to begin with (as having perhaps the better claim), is undone, shown to be a toss-up (though as for that the passing there). Here Frost uses that fourth line subversively, not to extend a thought but to retract it, a retraction that is smuggled in or given cover by the way (in the rhyme scheme) it comes right after, literally under, the previous line, as an afterthought. Before we move on again, let’s linger on the word fair, with its suggestions of beauty, honesty, and (when it comes to the weather) promise. Note its rhyme two lines later with wear, a kind of opposite in meaning, a word that then gets underscored and moved into the past two more lines down: worn. Sad translation. And note the also (sad) felicity of the passing there, a phrase that treats all past human traffic distantly, as a single, summable thing without agents, a quantity. I didn’t say much about the third line: grassy is wonderful (you can almost smell it), and so is wanted wear, which suggests that roads have desires.

And both that morning equally lay. Suddenly, a ray of sunlight. The scene is given a time, at once simply specific and symbolic: morning, naturally. The verb choice (lay) is inspired, both for its alliterative surroundings (equally lay / in leaves) and its counterintuitive sense: we think more of leaves lying on a path than a path lying in leaves. In leaves no step had trodden black. We realize, now that it ends, that we have been reading a single sentence, almost Miltonic (for Frost anyway) in its length, throughout the first three stanzas. (Unlike Milton, Frost does not extend his sentence through elaborate syntax; he relies on the simple joining performed by the word and, which has it own drama as it moves through the poem, initiating three of the first five lines and then starting a single, different line in each of the next three stanzas.) This same line (In leaves…) also marks the second and final appearance of a color in the poem, so that the arc of the sentence is from yellow to black (symbolic, yes, but they are also two colors that just go together well, as Piet Mondrian knew). After our necessary intake of breath following this long sentence, the rest of the poem starts with an exhalation (oh), a sigh that sets the tone for the remainder. Oh I kept the first for another day. The verb kept is perfect, reminding us how useless keepsakes are, and the rhythm conveys the tossed-off nature of the thought. But knowing how way leads on to way: another fourth line, and my favorite line in the poem, with its oh-so-simple statement of the ineluctability of causation: way, way. A sighing word, especially when said twice, in fact a near rhyme for sigh. Way has both Old English and Latin sources (weg, via) but it is closer to the Old English, where Frost’s heart lies. I doubted if I should ever come back. He might have written that I would but if I should is both more colloquial and less absolute, which, thanks to the rhetorical trick of understatement, makes it even more absolute.

I realize my take on the last stanza is not everyone’s cup of tea. It seems to me that the speaker is making fun of his future, aged self, full of inflation and high sentence. Frost often likes to mock the vanity of the ego (e.g. “For Once, Then, Something”), but let’s look at the internal evidence. The speaker has simplified the story in retrospect (the way we all do) to redound more to his own credit: I took the one less traveled by. Hold on a minute: we know that at most he had a mild impulse to make that choice (perhaps the better claim) and that in fact the roads were really indistinguishable (about the same). The high-toned exaggeration of ages and ages hence is further evidence of this interpretation, and what seals the deal is the overdramatic pause across the next line break, with its insistence on the heroic self: and I -- / I took the one. Don’t you hate it when people talk like that? In this reading, all the difference comes across as almost stupidly vague. What difference? The point of the poem is that there is no difference: the speaker is not special. He is you and I. But what you and I do is precisely to think, when we look back, that we were different. The saving grace of the poem is that at least the young speaker knows that he will think that way.

I’d rather end on a note of form than content. Check out the rhythm. Iambic tetrameter (de dum de dum de dum de dum) but sprinkled with anapestic exceptions (de de dum), which gives the whole thing a nice skipping quality: how light-hearted! And note where the anapests appear: most often on the third foot (i.e., And be one traveler, long I stood) (10 times), but also on the second foot (5 times), the fourth (3 times), and the first (once). These exceptions add variety and attract attention, especially in those lines with two anapests, like Oh I kept the first for another day. But the most marked lines of all are the three with no anapests. “In leaves no step had trodden black” is one of them, and it gains a little extra sobriety and darkness as a result – as if it needed it.

-- HC

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