Audio

A Misunderstood Chestnut

October 4, 2016

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week,  a misunderstood chestnut. It’s one of the most famous poems in the language. It’s taught in high school and loved by people who normally don’t read poetry. It’s also a poem that has been misunderstood for generations.

 

 

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

 

Curtis Fox: Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke. That’s right, a joke. To his surprise, his readers didn’t laugh. They took the poem quite seriously. They weren’t wrong, but they did miss out on some fun. To talk about the poem, I’m joined from Baltimore by Katherine Robinson, a poet and writer of fiction. She wrote a poem guide for “The Road Not Taken” for The Learning Lab on The Poetry Foundation’s website. Katherine, do you happen to remember where and when you were, and how old, when you first heard “The Road Not Taken”?

 

Katherine Robinson: I think my grandfather must have read it to me. He really loved Robert Frost and he would read me a lot of poetry. I think this was one of the poems he read.


Curtis Fox: And then you probably reread it in middle school, and re reread it in high school, right?

Katherine Robinson: Yeah, this is one that keeps coming back around.


Curtis Fox: Why do you think that is?

 

Katherine Robinson: I think that the poem is very powerful for the way it puts forward this galvanizing language about the importance of choice, and the importance of individual decision. I think on the surface that resonates with a lot of people, up to and including Robin Williams character in The Dead Poet’s Society.

 

Curtis Fox: Robert Frost said “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. I want you to find your own walk right now, your own way of strides, pacing, any direction, anything you want. Whether it’s proud, whether it’s silly, anything.


Katherine Robinson: But underneath that, it has this really rich rich layer of irony, and ambiguity, and self mockery even. I think even if readers don’t see all those layers on the first reading, they give the poem a kind of richness and depth, and a kind of almost three dimensionality.

 

Curtis Fox: We’re going to get into some of the layers, including the jokey layer of the poem in a moment. First what we should do is to hear it. There are lots of recordings of Frost himself reading it, and I’ll quote from one of those reading later. But first, let’s hear a more neutral reading by Dana Gioia.

 

Dana Gioia: 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.

 

Curtis Fox: So Katherine, I’ve read that poem like you dozens of times, and I’ve heard it many times. It still has the power to drag me along through it’s thought process. But what’s this joke? It’s not like I’m howling with laughter?

Katherine Robinson:(LAUGHING) Well the backstory of the joke is that Frost wrote the poem as a joke for his friend, the poet Edward Thomas. When Frost was living in England, he and Edward Thomas would go on these long long walks, and whenever they came to a fork in the road Edward Thomas would stand there and deliberate and think and then finally say, “I think if we go down this fork, we’ll find a birds nest or we’ll find this rare little stand of wildflowers”. Then they would walk along and walk along and there would be no birds nest. And then Edward Thomas would castigate himself, and be convinced that had they taken the other fork, they absolutely would have found that birds nest or the stand of wildflowers. So Frost would tease him and say no matter which road you take, you’re always going to wish you’d taken the other one.


Curtis Fox: Frost wrote the poem as a gently mocking way of making fun of his friend. He sent it to him, right? And then what happened? How did Edward Thomas take the joke?

Katherine Robinson: He didn’t, is the short answer. He read the poem and he thought it was a very serious earnest meditation on the importance of choice, and the importance of individual decisions. He wrote Frost a long letter where he didn’t see the mocking gently humorous side of the poem at all.


Curtis Fox: He didn’t see himself in the poem at all, not in the slightest way?

 

Katherine Robinson: He didn’t see himself in the poem, but he was taken aback by the powerful message which was contained in this incredibly colloquial, incredibly informal language. He wrote to Frost and he described himself as being staggered by realizing that the language of poetry could be so simple while containing such deep message.

 

Curtis Fox: Frost must have been staggered on his part —

 

Katherine Robinson: There was a bit of mutual staggering.

 

Curtis Fox:— that his joke did not register with Thomas. So what did Frost do?

 

Katherine Robinson: He wrote back and said, I think your respect for me as a poet is clouding your reception a little bit. I think it’s because you respect me as a poet so much that you see this as being formal at all. Yes the language is colloquial, but the message itself is not so much a message as a playful joke. And he said at the end, the sigh is a mock sigh. It’s just for the fun of it. He uses the word “fun” to describe that.

 

Dana Gioia: I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

 

Curtis Fox: You can hear a little bit of that mockery in Dana Gioia’s voice in his reading of it. So what was Thomas’s response when he learns it was a joke on him?

 

Katherine Robinson: He was a little bit stung. He pointed out a sort of difference in the temperament of these two poets. He said Frost was the sort of man who would pull up all his roots, sail across the ocean and move to England on a whim because he thought maybe it would advance his poetry career. Edward Thomas said I just don't have that in me, I don’t have that sort of spontaneity in me. He was much more deliberate about me.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s also important to say the poem was written probably about 1914, right?

 

Katherine Robinson: Very important.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s right at the beginning of World War One when a lot of young men are facing a very stark choice about whether to go into the war. In fact, Thomas did sign up.

 

Katherine Robinson: Yeah, Edward Thomas was one of those men and he was killed in World War One, not long after he enlisted.

 

Curtis Fox: So Frost writes it as a joke, his friend didn’t get the joke. Did Frost realize at that point that he’d written something a little deeper than a joke?


Katherine Robinson: Frost says, “I’m never more serious than when I’m joking”. I think I’d say that even if he saw it as a joke, that doesn’t preclude layers of seriousness within that joke.

 

Curtis Fox: Let’s go through it and see what we can make of it, especially imagining it as a joke and not a joke. Here’s Frost reading the first stanza.

 

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;

 

Curtis Fox: So Katherine, it’s a fable like beginning, you point out in your reading guide on the piece. What else do you notice about this stanza?

 

Katherine Robinson: I think the first line of the stanza is really fascinating for the way it describes this wood.

 

Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

 

Katherine Robinson: It’s fascinating how he takes that one detail of the leaves and turns it into something that is emblematic for the entire wood. I think that really linguistically foreshadows what Frost is going to suggest, mockingly, about choice in the poem. He’s going to suggests that one choice can become emblematic for an entire life.

 

Robert Frost: And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler

 

Katherine Robinson: I think it’s also interesting that he starts right away with a fantasy of simultaneity. “Sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler”. If you look at just the line beginnings, three of those lines begin with “and”. “Sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler, long I stood / and looked down as far as I could”. That word “and” is the word in our language that signals simultaneity, that signals the coexistence of two things. I think that linguistically sets up this fantasy of not wanting to choose, wanting to have both even as the speaker stands at a fork in the road and acknowledges that choice is necessary.

 

Robert Frost: 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.

 

Curtis Fox: Katherine, he says he took one road because it looked a little less worn, but then he says really they looked pretty much the same.

 

Katherine Robinson: Yeah, I think that’s where we start to feel the joke creeping in. He’s saying, I took this one because it was grassy and wanted wear and was less travelled, but then immediately he doubles back and says actually the other one was worn about the same amount. As if that wasn’t enough, if we missed the joke seed he was planting there, he then immediately goes on and in different language that the roads were about the same.

 

Robert Frost: And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

 

Katherine Robinson: So first he says they’re about equally worn, and then he says and actually they’re about both about equally untravelled, because if the leaves are un-trampled then no one has been down either one.

 

Curtis Fox: Metaphorically I think this is the reason people miss the joke, is that we can imagine our own choices in the past. We can project our own forks on this road. Should I have married him, or should I have taken that job? It metaphorically draws the reader in.

 

Katherine Robinson: I think that’s a huge part of why it’s become such a canonical and iconic poem in our culture. We all have those moments.


Curtis Fox: We can all read ourselves into that poem in a very clear way. that moment of choosing, which is always kind of anguishing, is very apparent in this poem. The poem goes on about how the speaker convinced himself to take one road and not the other.

 

Robert Frost: Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

Curtis Fox: At first, it’s a thought process that he’s describing here. He thinks, I can always come back and do the other one. But then he admits to himself that’s not the way life works, he doesn’t get to go back and redo things. It’s quite true, we often don’t get to make the same decision twice in life.

 

Katherine Robinson: That’s true. I think the tone of the poem borders on becoming slightly eerie at that moment too. “Knowing how way leads on to way I doubted I should ever come back”. Knowing when this poem is written, it’s impossible not to hear a small reference to World War One in those lines. This is a time where many many men were leaving roads of their hometowns and doubting they’d ever come back.

 

Curtis Fox: And then comes the kicker, the final stanza that has been read and misread for generations.

 

Robert Frost: 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.

 

Curtis Fox: That’s an extremely ambivalent ending. We can read it as a triumph; I took this road, yes. Or we can read it as rueful regret, right?

 

Katherine Robinson: Yes, absolutely. The sigh could be anything. It could be a sigh of contentment, it could be a sigh of regret. This idea of difference also could be anything. It doesn’t say whether the difference was wonderful or whether the difference was devastating. It just says that has changed something, but we don’t know what, and we don’t know whether for better or for worse.

 

Curtis Fox: The conventional way of reading this poem has been that it was a triumph. That I made a thought choice and I took the road less travelled by — even though he says it probably wasn’t less travelled by earlier in the poem. In other words, I did the more unconventional, perhaps more difficult thing and that has made all the difference. The other way of looking at it is of somebody looking back and perhaps regretting this choice.

 

Katherine Robinson: Frost calls it a mock sigh, so I think there’s probably a third way of reading it which is a self-mocking, overly dramatic assessment of this one moment in life.

 

Curtis Fox: All these readings can coexist, can they not?

 

Katherine Robinson: Yeah, which I think is the final triumph of this stanza. The poem is, in so many ways, about how choice is absolutely inevitable, absolutely inescapable. Which it is, we all know.  Yet this stanza manages to not make any choices. It manages to create a narrative that could be triumphant or that could be rueful. The language of the poem refuses to choose, which I think is sort of this wonderfully defiant move at the end of the poem. It also speaks to the fact that maybe in life, in the realm of art, two things can exist at once. Art can somehow trick it’s way out of having to make those choices that actual reality is always bounded by.

 

Curtis Fox: Thanks Katherine.


Katherine Robinson: You’re very welcome.

 

Curtis Fox: Katherine Robinson’s poem guide to “The Road Not Taken” can be found at The Learning Lab on our website. As always, let us know what you think of this podcast. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. Also, please let your friends know what you think of it on social media. You can subscribe to it at the iTunes Store and you can also read a review there. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

The different ways of reading a classic American poem

More Episodes from Poetry Off the Shelf
Showing 1 to 20 of 393 Podcasts
  1. Tuesday, October 2, 2018

    The Past is Present

    Poets
  2. Tuesday, September 11, 2018

    Poems from the Inside

  3. Tuesday, August 28, 2018

    This Poet Never Gets Old

  4. Tuesday, August 14, 2018

    The Robots are Coming to Class

    Poets
  5. Tuesday, July 31, 2018

    Retelling the American Story

  6. Wednesday, July 18, 2018

    The Man is There ... in the Tape

    Poets
  7. Tuesday, July 3, 2018

    Poems Don't Need Their Papers

  8. Tuesday, June 19, 2018

    Goooooaaaalllll!

  9. Tuesday, June 5, 2018

    Poetry Live to Tape

  10. Tuesday, May 22, 2018

    Prosey Poems

  11. Tuesday, May 8, 2018

    Burning for Justice

  12. Tuesday, February 27, 2018

    The Poet's Revenge

  13. Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    The Poetics of Mass Murder

  14. Tuesday, February 13, 2018

    Three Ways of Looking at a Rose

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
  1. Next Page