Monday, June 18, 2012

The Road Less Travelled

by Julia Buckley

Perhaps everyone is familiar with Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken."  It is referenced endlessly in positive thinking manuals, graduation cards, posters for offices and dorm room walls.  People see it as a mantra for success, or for making the right choices--or at least for embracing the choices one has made.

Back in the 90s I remember my wise English department chair and colleague saying, in reference to that work, "That's the most misinterpreted poem in the English language."  His contention was that the poem's speaker was NOT happy with the road he had chosen; in fact, the poem's title clearly shows that the speaker, even after many years, is focused on the road he did not choose, "and that has made all the difference." The speaker is not clear about what that difference is, but as with all of Frost's poems, there is ambiguity that allows for a darker interpretation.  One must especially consider the speaker's sigh as he contemplates the choice that he made long ago, wishing at the time that he could go down both roads to see where they led, but knowing that he could only choose one.

For me, the poem is an acknowledgment of life's difficult choices and the fact that we often wonder, in retrospect, if we made the right one--but by the time we pose that question, the second option is long gone. There is also the suggestion, I think, that after the passage of time we will often focus not on the choice we made, but on the choice we didn't, because we wonder about parallel lives we could have lived, and about imaginary doppelganger selves who had different fates. When we are young, perhaps, we feel that our choices are limitless.  When we are older, we may see them as far more restricted, and therefore we might naturally look back to a time of myriad options as something attractive.

Or of course both roads could be illusions.

I have had many "road not taken" moments in the past few years wherein I wonder how my life might have been different with another scenario.  For example, I was dating another person when I met my husband, and I have never regretted marrying the man I did--but that doesn't prevent the writer in me from wondering about that alternative scenario.  Had I married someone else--would I have had children?  Would I live in the same town?  Would I have the same career I do now?  Would my life have been significantly different, or would my path have had a very similar course?

Alternately, I sometimes think of my chosen career(s) and wonder what would have happened if I had chosen something else (doesn't everyone have at least one occupation that they secretly wish they had tried?).

Do you see the poem's message as positive or negative?  And have you ever indulged "road not taken" contemplations?


Sheila Connolly said...

If I recall, that was a poem we were "forced" to analyze in high school (back when we were wise). I always took it to mean that the poet took a non-conventional path, not the obvious one that other would have recommended.

Frost is often seen, through the lens of time, as a lovable grandpa type, but I've read that he was actually not such a nice person. Still, his poems usually go straight to the heart of the matter.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's hard to imagine Frost being unhappy with the acclaim he received for his work. Maybe he was regretting a relationship choice?

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila--I think Frost was a tormented person with a lot of anger; but I think his poetry suggests he saw this in himself.

Sandra, I've never really thought the poem was about Frost himself, although I guess that's possible, since he had a very sad life. I read his biography once, but had to refresh on Wikipedia to remember that he had two sisters in mental institutions; both he, his mother and his wife suffered from depression; and of his six children, only two outlived him. One died of cholera as a child, and one committed suicide.

JJM said...

Interesting -- like you, Sheila Connolly, I also thought the poem was about the non-conventional path. But, growing older, I more and more became convinced of the interpretation your colleague espoused. Very much an age thing, I suspect, the exaltation of non-conformity while one is young, the slow awareness of all the regrets of one's life as one begins to harvest what grew from our choices ... Good essay, thank you.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, JJM--I lean toward my friend Jim's interpretation, as well. But of course Frost leaves it ambiguous.

The Cat Bastet said...

I think I read Sue Grafton did this when creating Kinsey Milhone: What if I had married and divorced a jerk, became a PI, etc.? It makes me start thinking of how to develop realistic, complex characters; we learn can learn much about a person (even a fictional one) from her life choices.

Cathy AJ