TWO ROADS diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Generations of commencement speakers . . .
. . . have quoted "The Road Not Taken," because of its perceived message. Avoid the common route. Go your own way. Be a maverick, a nonconformist in the great American tradition of Emerson and Thoreau.
But now go back to the second stanza.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And perhaps having the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.]
As far as the traffic on them, the two roads are "really," Frost acknowledges, "about the same." Two question immediate occur. If there is little to distinguish the two roads, what do we make of the last stanza? And if the poem is not a straightforward assertion of nonconformist, what is it about?
One thing it is about is the inevitability of regret. You cannot "be one traveler and take both paths. At any crossroads you must choose, and though you may keep alive the hope that you'll return someday, you know deep down you will never get a second chance. "I doubted if I should ever come back."
What about the proud boast made in the last stanza? The key line, easy to overlook, is "I shall be telling this with a sign." The sigh communicates regret even as it paves the way for a stirring declaration of independence. But this declaration may just be a case of a proud man praising his own past.
Excerpted from David Lehman, "Clearing A Path To Truth," from "Masterpiece: 'The Road Not Taken' (1916), by Robert Frost," The Wall Street Journal, October 15-18, 2016.
Mr. Lehman elaborates on the work of another writer, whom he credits:
In its wizardry, the poem deserves the highest accolades. The irony is that it has often been loved and quoted for the wrong reasons. The further irony is that this misunderstanding itself testifies to the subtlety and genius of its creator. The critic David Orr has written an entire book -- "The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (2015) . . . on this misunderstanding and the nuances of Frost's design.
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