Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Road Not Taken

I first became aware of Robert Frost when he recited a poem at the John F. Kennedy inauguration in 1961. As I was only eight, I remember it more because my mom made a big deal of it at the time, not because it really stood out on its own. Since that time I'd always assumed he was our National Poet Laureate until now when I did a little fact-checking. He was actually Poet Laureate of the State of Vermont, hence my tendency to associate him with the artist Andrew Wyeth, another famed New Englander in the arts.

Though a winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, I have to believe Frost's The Road Not Taken must be his most famous poem. I'd venture to say that this poem alone, even without Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, had sufficient muscle to make him a household name, a fairly rare occurrence amongst twentieth century poets. I've assumed that school children everywhere have studied the poem, appreciating its elegance and accessibility. The simple metaphor of making a choice during a stroll through the woods has far-reaching applications that resonate with all of us, from relationship decisions to career moves.

The Road Not Taken

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.

The author comes to a fork in the path and ponders the possibilities of each, but because of the winding nature of what lies ahead is unable to really know how to choose. The first stanza outlines the problem. The following two stanzas reveal the storyteller's cogitations as he leaned into the former and then the latter, looking for a basis for making his decision.

In the end, he focuses on a decisive variable. Knowing that he will likely never be back at this spot again, he chose the path least travelled. That final line is an affirmation that he chose wisely.

* * * *

A forest of birches. Photo by Ryan Tischer.
This Ryan Tischer* photo provides a clue as to what kind of "yellow wood" Frost may have been meandering through, as well as the time of year. The photo, as you can see, paints a different scene. In the poem I envision rolling hills. In the image here, especially striking when it looms large, we see a relatively flat landscape with a single road, marching through rows of trees much like a headful of hair that has been parted by a fine-toothed comb.

My father was fond of white birches. When we moved to New Jersey in 1964 one of the first things he did was to plant a trio of birches near the corner of our front yard, hence my own special regard for these beautiful trees that seem especially abundant here in the Northland.

Meantime, life goes on...

* Ryan Tischer has opened a new gallery in Duluth's emerging Arts District. 

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