My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.
—Frost to Leonidas W. Payne Jr., November 1, 1927
“The Road Not Taken” has confused audiences literally from the beginning. In the spring of 1915, Robert Frost sent an envelope to English critic Edward Thomas that contained only one item: a draft of “The Road Not Taken,” under the title “Two Roads.” According to Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson, Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside—an impulse that Frost equated with the romantic predisposition for “crying over what might have been.” Frost, Thompson writes, believed that his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and would protest, ‘Stop teasing me.’”
That wasn’t what occurred. Instead, Thomas sent Frost an admiring note in which it was evident that he had assumed the poem’s speaker was a version of Frost, and that the final line was meant to be read as generations of high school valedictorians have assumed. The sequence of their correspondence on the poem is a miniature version of the confusion “The Road Not Taken” would provoke in millions of subsequent readers:
(1) Frost sends the poem to Thomas, with no clarifying text, in March or April of 1915.
(2) Thomas responds shortly thereafter in a letter now evidently lost but referred to in later correspondence, calling the poem “staggering” but missing Frost’s intention.
(3) Frost responds in a letter (the date is unclear) to ask Thomas for further comment on the poem, hoping to hear that Thomas understood that I was at least in part addressing his own behavior.
(4) Thomas responds in a letter dated June 13, 1915, explaining that “the simple words and unemphatic rhythms were not such as I was accustomed to expect great things, things I like, from. It staggered me to think that perhaps I had always missed what made poetry poetry.” It’s still clear that Thomas doesn’t quite understand the poem’s stance or Frost’s “joke” at his expense.
(5) Frost writes back on June 26, 1915: “Methinkest thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem. I wonder if it was because you were trying too much out of regard for me that you failed to see that the sigh [in line 16] was a mock sigh, hypo-critical for the fun of the thing. I don’t suppose I was ever sorry for anything I ever did except by assumption to see how it would feel.”
(6) Thomas responds on July 11, 1915: “You have got me again over the Path not taken & no mistake…I doubt if you can get anyone to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them what kind of laugh they are to turn on.”
Edward Thomas was one of the keenest literary thinkers of his time, and the poem was meant to capture aspects of his own personality and past. Yet even Thomas needed explicit instructions—indeed, six entire letters—in order to appreciate the series of double games played in “The Road Not Taken.” That misperception galled Frost. As Thompson writes, Frost “could never bear to tell the truth about the failure of this lyric to perform as he intended it. Instead, he frequently told an idealized version of the story” in which, for instance, Thomas said, “What are you trying to do with me?” or “What are you doing with my character?” One can understand Frost’s unhappiness, considering that the poem was misunderstood by one of his own early biographers, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (“Thomas, all his life, lived on the deeply isolated, lonely and subjective ‘way less travelled by’ which Frost had chosen in youth”), and also by the eminent poet-critic Robert Graves, who came to the somewhat baffling conclusion that the poem had to do with Frost’s “agonized decision” not to enlist in the British army. (There is no evidence that Frost ever contemplated doing so, in agony or otherwise.) Lyrics that are especially lucid and accessible are sometimes described as “critic-proof”; “The Road Not Taken”—at least in its first few decades—came close to being reader-proof.
* * *
The difficulty with “The Road Not Taken” starts, appropriately enough, with its title. Recall the poem’s conclusion: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” These are not only the poem’s best-known lines, but the ones that capture what most readers take to be its central image: a lonely path that we take at great risk, possibly for great reward. So vivid is that image that many readers simply assume that the poem is called “The Road Less Traveled.” Search-engine data indicates that searches for “Frost” and “Road Less Traveled” (or “Travelled”) are extremely common, and even accomplished critics routinely refer to the poem by its most famous line. For example, in an otherwise penetrating essay on Frost’s ability to say two things at once, Kathryn Schulz, the book reviewer for New York magazine, mistakenly calls the poem “The Road Less Traveled” and then, in an irony Frost might have savored, describes it as “not-very-Frosty.”
Because the poem isn’t “The Road less Traveled.” It’s “The Road Not Taken.” And the road not taken, of course, is the road one didn’t take—which means that the title passes over the “less traveled” road the speaker claims to have followed in order to foreground the road he never tried. The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do. Or is it? The more one thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes to be sure who is doing what and why. As the scholar Mark Richardson puts it:
Which road, after all, is the road “not taken”? Is it the one the spear takes, which, according to his last description of it, is “less travelled”—that is to say, not taken by others? Or does the title refer to the supposedly better-travelled road that the speaker himself fails to take? Precisely who is not doing the taking?
We know that Frost originally titled the poem “Two Roads,” so renaming it “The Road Not Taken” was a matter of deliberation, not whim. Frost wanted readers to ask the questions Richardson asks.
More than that, he wanted to juxtapose two visions—two possible poems, you might say—at the very beginning of his lyric. The first is the poem that readers think of as “The Road Less Traveled,” in which the speaker is quietly congratulating himself for taking an uncommon path (that is, a path not taken by others). The second is the parodic poem that Frost himself claimed to have originally had in mind, in which the dominant tone is one of self-dramatizing regret (for a path not taken by the speaker). These two potential poems revolve around each other, separating and overlapping like clouds in a way that leaves neither reading perfectly visible. If this is what Frost meant to do, then it’s reasonable to wonder if, as Thomas suggested, he may have outsmarted himself in addition to casual readers.
But this depends on what you think “The Road Not Taken” is trying to say. If you believe the poem is meant to take position on will, agency, the nature of choice, and so forth—as the majority of readers have assumed—then it can seem unsatisfying (at best “a kind of joke,” as Schulz puts it). But if you think of the poem not as stating various viewpoints but rather as performing them, setting them beside and against one another, then a very different reading emerges. Here it’s helpful, as is so often the case, to call upon a nineteenth-century logician. In The Elements of Logic, Richard Whateley describes the fallacy of substitution like so:
Two distinct objects may, by being dexterously presented, again and again in quick succession, to the mind of a cursory reader, be so associated together in his thoughts, as to be conceived capable…of being actually combined in practice. The fallacious belief thus induced bears a striking resemblance to the optical illusion effected by that ingenious and philosophical toy called the Thaumatrope; in which two objects painted on opposite sides of a card, for instance a man, and a horse, a bird, and a cage, are, by a quick rotatory motion, made to impress the eye in combination, so as to form one’s picture, of the man on the horse’s back, the bird in the cage, etc.
What is fallacious in an argument can be mesmerizing in a poem. “The Road Not Taken” acts as a kind of thaumatrope, rotating its two opposed visions so that they seem at times to merge. And that merging is produced not by a careful blending of the two—a union—but by “rapid and frequent transition,” as Whateley puts it. The title itself is a small but potent engine that drives us first toward one untaken road and then immediately back to the other, producing a vision in which we appear somehow on both roads, or neither.
* * *
That sense of movement is critical to the manner in which the poem unfolds. We are continually being “reset” as we move through the stanzas, with the poem pivoting from one reading to the other so quickly that it’s easy to miss the transitions. This is true even of its first line. Here’s how the poem begins:
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…
The most significant word in the stanza—and perhaps the most overlooked yet essential word in the poem—is “roads.” Frost could, after all, have said “paths” or “trails” or “tracks” and conveyed nearly the same concept. Yet, as the scholar George Monteiro observes:
Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word “roads.”…In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood,” Frost reacted with such feeling—“Two roads!”—that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word “roads” and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, “he didn’t let me get away with ‘two paths!’”
What is gained by “roads”? Primarily two things. First, a road, unlike a path, is necessarily man-made. Dante may have found his life similarly changed “in a dark wood,” but Frost takes things a step further by placing his speaker in a setting that combines the natural world with civilization—yes, the traveler is alone in a forest, but whichever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people, one that will be taken, in turn, by still other people long after he has passed. The act of choosing may be solitary, but the context in which it occurs is not. Second, as Wendell Berry puts it, a path differs from a road in that it “obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.” A road is an assertion of will, not an accommodation. So the speaker’s decision, when it comes, whatever it is, will be an act of will that can occur only within the bounds of another such act—a way of looking at the world that simultaneously undercuts and strengthens the idea of individual choice.
This doubled effect continues in the poem’s second and third lines, which summarize the dilemma around which “The Road Not Taken” is constructed: “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler…” Frost often likes to use repetition and its cousin, redundancy, to suggest the complex contours of seemingly simple concepts. In this case, we have what seems like the most straightforward preposition imaginable: If a road forks, a single person can’t “travel both” branches. But the concept is oddly extended to include the observation that one can’t “travel both’ and “be one traveler,” which seems superfluous. After all, Frost might more easily and obviously have written the stanza like so (emphasis mine):
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
To where they ended, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
What, then, is the difference between saying one can’t “travel both” roads and saying one can’t “travel both / And be one traveler”? And why does Frost think that difference worth preserving? One way to address these questions is to think about what the speaker is actually suggesting he’s “sorry’ about. He isn’t, for instance, sorry that he won’t see what’s at the end of each road. (If he were, it would make more sense to use the modified version above.) Rather, he’s sorry he lacks the capability to see what’s at the end of each road—he’s objecting not to the outcome of the principle that you can’t be two places at once, but to the principle itself. He’s resisting the idea of a universe in which his selfhood is limited, in part by being subject to choices. (Compare the case of a person who regrets that he can’t travel through time not because he wishes he could, say, attend the premiere of Hamlet, but simply because he wants to experience time travel.)
This assumes, of course, that the speaker regrets that he can’t travel both roads simultaneously. But what if he instead means that it would be impossible to “travel both / And be one traveler” even if he returned later to take the second road? As Robert Faggen puts it, the suggestion here is that “experience alters the traveler”: The act of choosing changes the person making the choice. This point will be quietly reinforced two stanzas later, when the speaker says that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”—the doubt not only that he might return again to the same physical spot, but that he could return to the crossroads as the same person, the same “I,” who left it. This reading of the poem is subtly different from, and bolder than, the idea that existence is merely subject to the need to make decisions. If we can’t persist unchanged through any one choice, then every choice becomes a matter of existential significance—after all, we aren’t merely deciding to go left or right; we’re transforming our very selves. At the same time, however, if each choice changes the self, then at some point the “self” in question becomes nothing more than series of accumulated actions, many of them extremely minor. Frost’s peculiar addition—“and be one traveler”—consequently both elevates and reduces the idea of the chooser while at the same time both elevating and reducing the choice. The thaumatrope spins, the roads blur and merge.
From THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2015 by David Orr.
Casper was born at home, twelve years ago. During labor, I crawled back and forth across the floor on my hands and knees. If I moved fast enough, I might dodge the steel-toed kick of the contractions against my cervix. Some small relief came from leaning out of a window into the cool night air; I would bellow, walrus-like, much to the surprise of the pedestrians below, before hands pulled me back inside. When he crowned, I remember placing my fingers on the wet fur of Casper’s head, and saying, “I love you, baby,” to his half-submerged form. A photograph shows his upside-down head, white with vernix, and with a single teardrop of blood rolling down one cheek, sticking out from between my legs.
The decade prior had been spent travelling across America in search of subjects to photograph. I had built my work and my life on the road, and, now that I was a mother, I had no idea how to continue living as an artist. But I figured things would work out somehow, if I could just get us out there. I equipped my van with all the props of domesticity, and we split. Later, when Casper could talk, he dubbed the van the “Mama Car.”
We crossed the country many, many times. Our migrations followed the weather, so that the barefoot pleasures of summer could extend as long as possible into the winter months. We climbed rocks in the desert and trees in the forest, built forts out of sticks, and spiced our mud pies with pine needles. A bump in the road would jostle an assortment of glass jars, spilling insect specimens onto the floor of the van. The next day, we would wake up with ladybugs in our hair; I discovered that they bite. Casper thought it was normal—thought other mamas loaded sheet film at McDonald’s, other kids stacked rocks while their parents composed scenes. On waking from a nap in his car seat, he might ask me, “Where are we, Mama? Are we shopping for views?” Or, pointing out a van along the way, he would inquire, “Who lives in that Mama Car?” Often, people thought we were homeless and offered us food or money. Other parents would pull their children away from us in playgrounds: “Suzy,” they would say, “come play over here.”
The road cemented our togetherness, at times in brutal ways. Casper was the constant focus of my attention, and I struggled to find space in which to work. When I did, my photography felt peripheral to my parenting. The luxury of overthinking my process gave way to the necessity of working fast, on the fly, making the best of what was at hand. I learned to trust in chance accidents, which were in no short supply. Casper changed not only how I photographed but what I photographed; his being permeated everything I did. And yet it was as if each picture took me away from him, and he was forever pulling me back. I remember complaining to him once, “Jeff Wall doesn’t have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots!” And he, age four, replying, “Oh yeah? What else does Jeff Wall not have to do?”
The photographs I took of Casper didn’t express the sentiments of a doting mother, despite the intensity of the love I felt for him. They were compromises—shots taken when he fell asleep in the car, or couldn’t be convinced to leave the campground, or when holding his squirming body prevented me from finding other people to photograph. Often, the pictures I took of him seemed to be tinged with resentment: Was this the best I could manage? At other times he would simply refuse to be photographed—standing still for a large-format camera can be a tedious task. I would beg or bribe him for photographs; his permission, when given, came grudgingly. A favorite tactic was to place his hand in front of his face, but he later invented more subtle forms of protest, folding his body inward, with his hair in front of his face. Once, while waiting for a train that never came, Casper broke away from me. He ran into the tall grass of the industrial wilderness that lined the tracks, and yelled back to me, “I don’t need you; I don’t need anybody!”
My decision, in 2010, to get off the road and enroll Casper at school was made for many reasons, not the least of which was the recognition that my supposed freedom was impinging on his independence. Where he had once wanted nothing more than to have me to himself, he was now beginning to outgrow life in the van. Driving down the highway on one of our last trips together, I tallied up the pros and cons for the millionth time, trying to decide if it was worth it—the toll on Casper, his father, and me—in order to continue to make my work. Thinking out loud, I said, “I don’t know why I do it; I don’t know why I’m a photographer.” Casper, now age six, responded, “Mama, you’re a photographer so you can go on road trips.” As if to say, “I forgive you.”
Of the four months of the year I now spend on the road, Casper travels with me for two. The other two, somewhat desperate childfree months—January and June—are hard to claim for myself, torn as I am between the roles of selfless parent and narcissistic artist, to the point where I feel like a narcissistic parent and_ _an artist without a self. I know Casper is fine when I leave—he’s with his father, after all—but still I return anxious, loaded down with unnecessary gifts, swooping back as if to rescue him. The partially reclaimed independence of driving slowly west alone has caused my work to shift again. Now the pictures I take focus literally on the stuff of the road: the cracked cement, the greasy underbellies of automobiles—the car as both symbol and fact in the American landscape. It occurs to me that all of these pictures could be taken ten miles from where I live. And yet I continue to crisscross the country.
The photographs and text in this post were drawn from “Highway Kind,” by Justine Kurland, which is out October 31st from Aperture. A version of this essay first appeared in Hobo magazine.