Poetry News

Behind the Poem: "The Road Not Taken"

By Harriet Staff

Over at The Guardian, Matthew Hollis wrote a detailed, fascinating feature on the friendship of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas that sheds light on the genesis and influence of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a poem that helped seal Frost's legacy and that, oddly, adorns dorm walls to this day.

The two met in England at the onset of the First World War and formed a deep friendship. Thomas championed Frost's poems when nobody else seemed to notice them, and Frost eventually prodded Thomas to convert some of his prose into verse.

From the article:

So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision, and could not readily choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France. War seemed such an unlikely outcome for him. He was an anti-nationalist, who despised the jingoism and racism that the press was stoking; he refused to hate Germans or grow "hot" with patriotic love for Englishmen, and once said that his real countrymen were the birds. But this friendship – the most important of either man's life – would falter at a key moment, and Thomas would go to war.

Thomas was 36 that summer of 1914, Frost was 40; neither man had yet made his name as a poet. Thomas had published two dozen prose books and written almost 2,000 reviews, but he had still to write his first poem. He worked exhaustedly, hurriedly, "burning my candle at 3 ends", he told Frost, to meet the deadlines of London's literary editors; he felt convinced that he amounted to little more than a hack. He was crippled by a depression that had afflicted him since university. His moods had become so desperate that on the day he was introduced to Frost, he carried in his pocket a purchase that he ominously referred to as his "Saviour": probably poison, possibly a pistol, but certainly something with which he intended to harm himself.

Then came a heated run-in with a gamekeeper that—along with a certain poem—would help convince Thomas to go to war:

In late November 1914, Thomas and Frost were strolling in the woods behind Frost's cottage when they were intercepted by the local gamekeeper, who challenged their presence and told the men bluntly to clear out. As a resident, Frost believed he was entitled to roam wherever he wished, and he told the keeper as much. The keeper was unimpressed and some sharp words were exchanged, and when the poets emerged on to the road they were challenged once more. Tempers flared and the keeper called Frost "a damned cottager" before raising his shotgun at the two men. Incensed, Frost was on the verge of striking the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading each other before then finally parting, the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked.

Thomas said that the keeper's aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done about it. Frost's ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done and done right now, and if Thomas wanted to follow him he could see it being done. The men turned back, Frost angrily, Thomas hesitantly, but the gamekeeper was no longer on the road. His temper wild, Frost insisted on tracking the man down, which they did, to a small cottage at the edge of a coppice. Frost beat on the door, and left the startled keeper in no doubt as to what would befall him were he ever to threaten him again or bar access to the preserve. Frost repeated his warning for good measure, turned on his heels and prepared to leave. What happened next would be a defining moment in Frost and Thomas's friendship, and would plague Thomas to his dying days.

The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas who, until then, had not been his primary target. The gun was raised again; instinctively Thomas backed off once more, and the gamekeeper forced the men off his property and back on to the path, where they retreated under the keeper's watchful aim.

This run-in haunted Thomas and, as Frost claims, caused his eventual enlistment in the war. But, before that:

In the early summer of 1915, six months after the row with the gamekeeper, Thomas had still to take his fateful decision to enlist. Zeppelins had brought the war emphatically to London, but Thomas's eyes were on New Hampshire, to where Frost had returned earlier that year. Thomas prepared his mother for the news that he might emigrate, and told Frost he seemed certain to join him: "I am thinking about America as my only chance (apart from Paradise)." But Thomas's prevarication got the better of him once more, and though conscription had yet to be introduced, he told Frost of the equal pull of the war in France. "Frankly I do not want to go," he said of the fighting, "but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless."

But the problem was not endless as Thomas thought, for a poem of Frost's had arrived by post that would dramatically force Thomas's hand: a poem called "Two Roads", soon to be rechristened "The Road Not Taken". It finished:

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.

Then, Thomas' reaction:

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.

Frost insisted that Thomas was overreacting, and told his friend that he had failed to see that "the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing". But Thomas saw no such fun, and said so bluntly, adding that he doubted anyone would see the fun of the thing without Frost to guide them personally. Frost, in fact, had already discovered as much on reading the poem before a college audience, where it was "taken pretty seriously", he admitted, despite "doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling . . . Mea culpa."

"The Road Not Taken" did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. "Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me."

Thomas enlisted in the war and was killed in under two months at Arras on Easter, 1917.

Read the entire feature—and examine its interesting graphic—here.

Originally Published: August 1st, 2011