A brief note, referring to a New Englander of note.

| 35 Comments

Many people, too numerous to count, have quoted "The Road Not Taken," written in 1916 by Robert Frost. When they do so, almost inevitably they quote from sections of the final stanza, which I shall reprint here:

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.

When people make reference to this poem, it generally reflects upon a choice they or someone else has made -- often though not exclusively the decision to be a writer or artist instead of some kind of... I don't know. Non-writer or artist. They see this as romantic -- the celebration of the non-conformist and non-traditional. They even refer to the poem as "The Road Less Traveled." Seriously. It's remembered as "The Road Less Traveled" way more often than it's remembered as "The Road Not Taken," and with good reason. The incorrect title celebrates the choice that is made. "The Road Not Taken" harkens back to the choice that didn't get taken.

And that would imply... doubt... as to the glories of the choice that has been made.

Let us go then, you and I (when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table, but I digress), and examine the poem as Frost himself wrote it, not as we remember it. Let us start at the very beginning, and consider what is said:

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;

If we go with the allegory of choice, the voice has come to a point of decision, and takes the time to consider where he would go, because he can only choose one path. Become a stockbroker? Or a poet? What to do? Which will take me where in life? What will bring me happiness?

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,

He elects to do the unusual -- to go a direction most don't. In the allegory, his choice is not the easy one, but one perhaps less simple, less expected. He goes the way most don't. Though as he goes, he notices that his choice seems more mundane than expected. Perhaps this wasn't quite so bold and individualist as it seems....

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.

He lies to himself, and says he can always go back and be a stockbroker later. He's young. There's time! He can do what he wants! At the same time, as the autumn has come and spread leaves upon the trails, both routes are somehow made new. No one has seen either path the way they currently lie. If we indulge in metaphor... in the end, it doesn't matter which choice you take: the expected choice will still have unexpected twists, and the nonconformist path in the end isn't all that unusual. There is no innate moral, ethical or artistic superiority in making the less common choice. The stockbroker can be just as happy and just as creative as the artist, in the end.

And that brings us to that same last stanza we quoted above. I repeat it here, to be seen with the perspective of the rest of the fucking poem it's part of added to it:

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 voice doesn't sound triumphant or resolute now; it sounds resigned, and cynical. He will be retelling the story of his life one day -- and as you'll note, he's retelling it right now, making the future the present. The immediate. But he is not cheering, and not shouting. He is sighing. He had a choice to make, and he took the so-called rare and non-conformist route. He has learned it's just about the same path, through the wood and through life, as the normal path would have been. His bold move was an illusion -- his final clause ("I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference") ironic instead of literal. There was no real difference. None at all.

It is an ironic poem, and a cynical one, and one that puts the lie to all those who assert themselves all Walt-Whitmanesquely. Get over yourself, this poem says. Everyone is a special snowflake. And as we have learned from that modern tale of artistic merit, The Incredibles, when everyone is special, then no one is special.

Which means that Robert Frost's cynical observation on a life "less traveled" and his wistful thoughts of what life could have been have been transformed, alchemically, into a rallying cry for the very self-aggrandizing self-editing that Frost was mocking. The transformation is so complete that the very title of the poem is misremembered, no longer calling back what might have been, but instead asserting the superiority of the choice made.

Right here? This is poetry in the modern world for you.

Also, that bit about "Good fences make good neighbors" from Frost's poem "Mending Wall?" Yeah, he was decrying the use of isolation and division and the glib use of homily to excuse away the stultifying artificiality of the barriers we put between us, even in the face of the world trying to tear those barriers down. When you quote it without irony you're getting the fucking thing wrong. Just so you know. Kisses.

35 Comments

Eric, you have just totally made my day. And despite being an English Lit major and thus contractually obligated to bring up another good literary reference, I will instead note that "Every Breath You Take" is a stalker song, people, not a love song. Don't play it at your weddings unless you are trying for ironically creepy or something.

Speaking of reading the text for the damn opposite effect and all.

(Okay, obligatory actual literary reference: How many people quote Polonius' advice from Hamlet as "Shakespeare quotes" without noticing that in context they're the windbaggy ditherings of a meddling old man who screws things up more when he tries to help people?)

So... you're defending authorial intent?

:D

*ducks*

Totally agree about "The Road Not Taken." I've been hearing the happy version of this poem since I was little, my dad was a career councilor for most of my life.

A question: Where do you find, in the third stanza, that "his choice is not the easy one"?

Seems to me that just because one path hasn't been worn down as much as another doesn't mean it's harder, just less used. Besides, the first path is the one where undergrowth is mentioned, not the second.

HAH! I knew someone would bring up Authorial Intent, whether humorously or not! HAH! You have fallen into my cunning trap!

Reader response and interpretation is real. What you take away from a poem is as real as what the author intended, and a credible case for alternate interpretation is all that's required to shrug in the face of a frothing author and say "yeah, but I don't care what you meant."

The key phrase there is credible case.

There is no way to read "The Road Not Taken" as extolling the non-traditional choice. The imagery is too clear, the mitigation too complete. You can certainly interpret "The Road Not Taken" differently than I have. You can strip it of allegory and read it as purely natural. You can read any number of things into it and support them from the text.

What you cannot do is create a valid interpretation of the last two to five lines of the poem if that interpretation refutes the first three stanzas of the poem. The one thing -- the only thing -- that can be proven in the interpretation of poetry are incorrect interpretations. It can be demonstrated that the voice sees no real difference, on reflection, between the two paths. It can be demonstrated in multiple ways in multiple stanzas. The converse cannot be demonstrated if one considers the entire poem, rather than one stanza quoted out of context.

You can have a different interpretation than the author did, and that interpretation is just as valid as the author's, whether the author likes it or not. But you have to show your work, and the validity of alternate interpretation does not protect the reader from being demonstrably wrong.

Seems to me that just because one path hasn't been worn down as much as another doesn't mean it's harder, just less used.

See, here's one of those "differing but equally valid" interpretations. When I see that a trail is well-worn, to me that means many pairs of feet have worn the trail smooth and easily passable. From that first look, it seems that the first path is well-traveled and, as stated, well worn, while the second "wanted wear," which suggests that not only is the path not as worn, but it actually could use some breaking in.

That said, your reading works just as well.

Funnily enough, I had an encounter with the poem in high school complete with the teacher telling me "it's not what you've been led to believe". So this was essentially retreading a thought process I'd gone through before.

Wow! Two posts in two days! I had been considering myself lucky to see two posts in two months! :)

I've always sort of rolled my eyes at bohemians quoting this poem; so cliche now. (I've no shortage of bohemians around me, being an art school student.)

But I wanted to chime in with the first interpretation I came across for The Road Not Taken... It was in a study hall I had in my first year of high school, and the teacher had the poem and interpretation up on a couple cards of poster board in his room, so I read it over a few times throughout the year.

The two roads were an easy road to an okay job/life/whatever, and the hard road to an awesome life full of fulfillment. The argument what that the narrator took the road that was harder to travel, that "wanted wear", instead of the easy road that many others had walked before. In some ways, it was a slightly passive-agressive message to us teenagers in study hall to work hard and reap the rewards later instead of just coasting.

But all in all, I do like the poster board interpretation better than the conventional reading that bohemian > more awesome than everything.

(Okay, obligatory actual literary reference: How many people quote Polonius' advice from Hamlet as "Shakespeare quotes" without noticing that in context they're the windbaggy ditherings of a meddling old man who screws things up more when he tries to help people?)

Oi! The degree of Polonius' idiocy depends entirely on how the director and the actors stage it. Polonius is a meddlesome man, yes -- but that is essentially his job in the court.

The role itself can be played two ways: one, Polonius is a doddering old fool who fucks everything up, and two, Polonius is a sharp guy who has the disadvantage of not knowing what's actually going on, and the added disadvantage of Hamlet being at least as smart and possibly smarter.

Saying "Polonius is an idiot" is like saying "Hamlet loves his mother." It's something that can be true depending on the production, but it's not an inherent truth to the script.

... and of course Polonius can be played more than just those two ways. I'm simplifying for the sake of contrast.

I like the revised version I once saw in a print ad for some sporty new car:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I?
I took the one less traveled by state troopers."

when quoting an author of note
be sure to read all that he wrote
fail at the first
and the meaning's reversed
by the absent context of the quote

OK, I can't let this bit pass without commenting:

And as we have learned from that modern tale of artistic merit, The Incredibles, when everyone is special, then no one is special.

That line has always bugged the crap out of me. Syndrome was an evil psychotic serial-murderer, yes, but the part of his plan where he would sell his gadgets so that everyone could be super? That part was right.

It's not as though the supers in the Incredible-verse have earned their superpowers through dedicated public service, or been granted them as a reward for sterling character, or whatever; they receive them as an accident of birth.

Which is fine and a standard superhero setup; but the message that the movie seems to be sending here is, "It's not cool that I can fly, unless nobody else gets to fly." Some guy thinks it would be neat to have a gadget that lets him lift his car over his head? Screw that guy, he's not special like I am. The plebian herd should bow down to their rightful masters, who inherited their superiority because they had the right parents.

I adore about 99% of The Incredibles... but that part is the part that I don't.


http://www.asofterworld.com/clean/path.jpg

Joey Comeau appears to have something to say on this.

I'm just sayin'.

That bit from the Incredibles always bugged me a bit too, but I don't think it's supposed to be read quite as on the surface as would appear natural.

I think it's generally just a movement against celebrating the mediocre. Which doesn't mean necessarily that the mediocre should bow down to the excellent, just you know, we celebrate the excellent, mediocre is fine, but it's not particularly praise-worthy. There seems to be a trend in this generation in particular, definitely the one I grew up in, where everyone is unique, and they are special because they are unique, and all that's required to be great is to just be yourself.

This has always rung a little hollow to me. Getting praise for doing nothing always struck me as worse than getting no praise at all. If I'm to be celebrated it has to be for an accomplishment of some sort.

True, the Supers got their powers by accident of birth, but they strike me as just a metaphor for the gifted in our society, those who are born with some innate talent above and beyond the norm. Geniuses and star atheletes etc. We have no problem celebrating them, even though they were born with a leg up on others and didn't "earn" that. That's not to say that gifted people don't still have work to do, you cannot just be naturally talented and let that carry the day, but the Supers in the Incredibles don't either, they take the talents they were given and they go out there and work at being Super, doing good deeds. The Superheroes are not praised merely because they are Super, but because they are Heroes.

Further, I saw Syndrome's devices as metaphors for the various shortcuts to "greatness" that our culture throws at us. Miracle diets, easy to use excercise equipment, pharmacueticals for any occasion, get rich quick schemes, whatever. The point was the mediocre can rise to greatness, but that's not going to happen by buying your way in. There's no reason to praise someone who can fly because he bought jet-boots.

So... yeah, Incredibles message about Excellence and Mediocrity: Not Quite as Negative as it First Appears, I guess would be my message.

On the original topic, one of my favourite quoted-out-of-context-thus-missing-entire-point lines is the Henry VI line re: Lawyers, you all know the one I mean. It resonates particularly strongly as a law school hopeful. I even saw it used to it's appropriated incorrect intent in Boston Public, which is like, David E. Kelly, you should know better.

Yeah, the lawyers thing is a lost cause though. Too many people are in favor of the idea in general to bother sitting through an explanation of the actual context. :)

There's no reason to praise someone who can fly because he bought jet-boots.

There's no reason to praise someone who can fly because he has a flying-related mutation, either.

There is some reason to praise the guy who invented the jet boots so that he could fly, though.

I get what you're saying about talent-versus-mediocrity, and I'm sure that's the point that the movie was trying to make. But I think it undercuts that point unintentionally. For instance, Dash wants to go out for track, and Bob wants to encourage him because "he'd be great"... but he's so great that there's no point in him competing in track with a bunch of elementary school kids, or indeed any normal human. It would be like Michaal Phelps entering a high school swim meet; of course he'll win, but what's the point?

There's no reason Dash shouldn't be competing, but he needs to compete with people who can challenge him. Other speedsters, if any exist. Mad scientists who build super-fast robots. Whatever. Dash joining his school track team is ridiculous.

But perhaps what's bugging me more is the emphasis on being "special." Is that really the point? Is the goal to be the best that you personally can be, or is the goal to be superior to the other guy? Does somebody have to lose before you can be a winner?

Not much to say regarding "The Road Not Taken," other than that the condition of the road that was taken has always seemed maddeningly ambiguous. The road "was grassy wanted wear," yet "the passing there/ had worn them really about the same?" Is the road worn down or not? MAKE UP YOUR MIND, FROST. Still a damn good modernist poem, though.

But really, I came in here to talk about The Incredibles. I didn't think of Syndrome's inventions as metaphors for society's "shortcuts" to greatness, but that actually seems to fit fairly well. The difference can really be seen if you compare Syndrome's control of his man-made powers to the way the kids use their natural ones: Syndrome's always throwing someone too far, losing control of a rocket boot at a critical moment, forgetting about the tanker he had hovering in the air just a moment before. And don't forget the adaptable robot that he created, planning to defeat it by remote control- until the robot noticed the remote control and adapted. The kids, on the other hand, never miss a step after their plane explodes. And they aren't expected to, either. Their mom just tells them, "you'll be fine- it's in your blood," and leaves them in the jungle, confident they'll handle themselves. And they do. Their talent is the product of their natures.

Of course, you could argue that Syndrome's ability to build machines is every bit as natural as the Incredibles' various talents. In that case, Syndrome becomes that ubiquitous Ayn Rand villain: the superman who seeks to destroy himself and his peers due to a deep reservoir of self-loathing (for example, Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead). In this context, Syndrome's plans to sell out are an act of personal self-destruction raised to a global scale. Not only does Syndrome "lose" his powers when everyone gains equivalent ones, but the powers they gain would be enough to create worldwide chaos. Which brings us back to Ross's problems with the movie's message being, "The plebian herd should bow down to their rightful masters," but in both superhero stories and Objectivism, a certain pessimism regarding the human race is inescapable, and generally acknowledged by their creators. It's a bit more palatable if you think of the Incredible kids as legitimate superheroes by virtue of their own actions, rather than their biological ancestry.

You had to bring Ayn Rand into it, didn't you :)

I disagree that Syndrome is a Rand villain. The standard Rand antagonist is someone who wants to drag all the gifted people down to the common level. Syndrome, in his own twisted way, wants to elevate everyone up to his own level. (Or, more likely, up to almost his own level; he is a villain, after all. But still, "up.")

The movie seems to be taking the view that both acts are equally bad. Whether you're pulling down the talented, or pushing up the untalented, you're erasing the differences and making the "special" people not special anymore and that's a Bad Thing.

I would argue that there is a big difference between tearing down the talented in the name of equality on one hand, or finding ways to let the mediocre be competitive on a higher plane on the other hand. The first is an act of oppression, and those who try it should be booted firmly in the head. The latter is awesome if you can do it.

I am very amused by this in context with the most recent A Softer World.

@Ross: I'm not sure you're thinking Syndrome's plan through to its proper conclusion. After all, within the context of the movie (and most comics), a superhero's job is to assist in protecting the citizenry with their super powers. But if you give everyone superpowers, you've made them incapable of doing so- every petty thief now has the powers to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Incredible. Sure, I can already hear you arguing, but the average people have those powers now, too, and should be able to neutralize any super-powered criminals. But if that's the case, why did the average people need heroes to protect them when they and the bad guys were just regular humans? Syndrome's plan escalates the everyday conflict between the law-abiding and law-breaking so high that superheroes, the only people that are able to tilt the balance in favor of the good guys (in the world of the comics in general and the movie in particular), are neutralized. Man will not be "elevated" by Syndrome's plans, any more than men with spears are "elevated" when they're given machine guns.

Also, even though I don't want to drag Rand into this too much, it is worth noting that every one of her villains oppresses the gifted through laws and regulations intended to elevate the common man.

And personally, I think the movie gets around these ethical problems by making Syndrome's methods sufficiently diabolical: even if he manages to help people with his technology, he made it come about by killing superheroes to fine-tune a robot that he let loose in a city to kill thousands before he pretends to defeat it- and it turns out in the end that he probably wouldn't have been able to defeat it. This guy is Dr. Doom-level insane (appropriately enough), the type of guy who, if he helped an old woman cross the street, would immediately feel the need to disembowel a puppy, just to keep things level.

So what you're saying is that this movie is a cleverly disguised argument in favor of gun control...

Aw, damn it, I didn't even think of that! No, that was just a crappy analogy. Since I can no longer quit while I'm ahead, I'm going to quit before I can fall any further behind.

NOTE:
"The Road less Traveled" is a self-help book that was on the best seller list for all of the 80's and much of the 90's (heck, it might still be).

I think this is why people think Frost's poem is named that.

I found your reading interesting and this is the first time I've really read the entire poem, although I am familiar with the ending for the reasons you state.

I don't pretend to be an English Major, but when I read the whole poem without Eric's commentary, it doesn't (to me) read as all that regretful. Yes, he took a less travelled road, but it is really not that much different. ("Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same,"). He is wistful, yes; sorry he could not travel both paths, perhaps. But I don't really read much in the way of regret in the voice, just acknowledgement that one can't make both choices.

And, now that I've written that out, I see this has already been mentioned by ticknart. Oh well. :)

Also, comment preview? Ouch.

On the original topic, one of my favourite quoted-out-of-context-thus-missing-entire-point lines is the Henry VI line re: Lawyers, you all know the one I mean.

And Eric does know which one you mean, having already explained it in a snark about Schlock Mercenary some time ago.

I'd love to get involved in the Syndrome: Ayn Rand Villain or Just Crazy? discussion (though I will note for those looking forward to the Watchmen movie that there's an interesting parallel that can be drawn between Syndrome and...OK, I won't spoil it. Those of you who've read the graphic novel know who I'm talking about.)

Instead, I'll present an alternate version of Frost's poem that a friend composed for me:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And knowing that I could not travel both
And be one traveler,
I stood.

I wonder if this is related to the way if you tell people some statements about a topic are wrong, their recall of the statements goes up, but they don't recall that they're wrong. Ah, here we go, it's source amnesia.

The key phrase there is credible case.

The thing is, the credibility of any particular case is itself subjective. While I agree that words have meaning and a poem doesn't just mean any damn thing somebody decides it does, this just seems to be pushing the question of subjectivity back a step.

I don't know that I agree with your interpretation of the last stanza as ironic and cynical; I think you're reading a lot into the speaker's sigh. As I see it, he doesn't sigh because he expected more from his journey down the less-travelled road, nor from some recognition of the futility of attempted non-conformity. Rather, here is a person who chooses the path less travelled, not because he's trying to buck conformity, but because it's in his nature. Something inside him urges him to choose this path — it's not a conscious decision; he doesn't even know where the path will end. But before he takes the first step, he knows that somewhere down the line, when he finally reaches that uncertain destination, someone will ask him how he got there and what made him undertake his journey. The sigh is because he doesn't know how else to explain himself, except to say that he came to a crossroads, and something inexplicable prompted him in one direction over another.

The allegory that I take from the poem is that we make decisions all the time, some big, some small. Some we agonize over, and some we make without even realizing it. If someone were to ask how each of us came to be the person we are today, who wouldn't be able to find a moment in their lives where, in a fit of caprice, they chose one path over another, and that made all the difference?

That's how I read it, at least. As for Frost's intent... well, to quote the man, "We dance round in a ring and suppose/But the Secret sits in the middle and knows."

(Also, as an aside: "Good fences make good neighbors" was a English proverb from the 17th century. Frost was indeed decrying the sentiment, but the man can't lay claim to the phrase.)

The thing is, the credibility of any particular case is itself subjective. While I agree that words have meaning and a poem doesn't just mean any damn thing somebody decides it does, this just seems to be pushing the question of subjectivity back a step.

Nope. The absolute key -- the only one that counts no matter what your personal critical theory might be -- to interpretation is the text of the poem. That doesn't push subjectivity back a step, that sets the ground rules for the discussion. We can't know what Frost meant and it doesn't matter anyway -- we can know what he wrote. If what he wrote is contrary to your subjective reading, your reading is wrong, full stop.

On the other side of it, take a look at what Ben G. said in the next comment. He had a substantially different read of the poem than I did, and took away different impressions than I did. My reading is neither superior nor inferior to his -- his read is valid based upon the text. Ben and I can discuss or even argue about the poem and how we see our own interpretations, but I can't call him wrong and he can't call me wrong, even if we don't agree. That is subjective.

However, one can't make a credible case that the poem is a celebration of the less-beaten path. It's simply too easy to refute that interpretation.

I say again -- you can't prove any one interpretation is right, but you can demonstrate when an interpretation is wrong.

Thank you.

Thank you, so much.

Another of these culturally misunderstood idioms is "law unto themselves". As the phrase is used casually in today's society it refers to (here we go again) non-conformists and mavericks, though not always positively as "the road less traveled" is used.

But in context - one of Saint Paul's letters to the Romans - it's actually referring to pagans who, without actually being familiar with God's Law as revealed in the scriptures, nevertheless behave according to God's Law through the agency of their own conscience.

In other words, in context, it refers to instinctive conformity to the conventional and accepted.

My next door neighbor's car has a bumper sticker that reads, "I took the road [sic] less traveled by. Now where the hell am I?"

It's right above the one that says, "Some days, all I want to be is a missing person."

@Doug: The problem is that none of that is ever mentioned in the movie, or even hinted at, so it's just a guess. You're reading things into it that aren't there.

There's also the problem that, for a significant span of time in the storyline, the supers were required to be inactive (and therefore not protecting anybody), yet the ordinary citizens don't seem to be inconvenienced by this. It doesn't really address how they dealt with supervillains like Bomb Voyage during that time, but they apparently did okay.

If what he wrote is contrary to your subjective reading, your reading is wrong, full stop.
Oh? What about sarcastic or ironic phrases? Without it being stated, the viewer gets the sense that what is written is not what is meant. You yourself used it in your interpretation of the poem (although the contrast is obvious, in this case, especially with the second stanza which tells that the roads aren't much different at all).

Now you can back up your point with taking the rest of the poem literally, but couldn't I just say that the parts of the second stanza which make the paths sound similar are not meant to be taken literally, and that there really -was- a big difference? It's fairly easy to say, and although I agree with your interpretation, it doesn't make that one wrong.

@gwalla - Well, that gets into an interesting question, are there any true super-villains in the sense of the super-powered? We see Bomb Voyage and Syndrome, but they both seem to be regular humans with gadgets. We see Mirage who's morally ambiguous and besides, seems to only have the super-power of Kate Moss physique. Everyone we see who's actually gifted with a superpower is morally upright and on the side of good. Do you only get superpowers if you're a good person? Or does having superpowers make you good? And, interestingly enough, that pretty much derails the gun control argument because a) here, it's the heroes who have the guns versus real life where it's usually the criminals who have the guns in a controlled society and b) guns are equalizers against those with inherent talent. You had to be pretty physically gifted and spend years of training to become a samurai. But a peasant can get a day's training in the gun and suddenly, they can stand up against the elite. Sure, the elite can always get more guns, and train them harder, but the ease of use means that guns tend to favor the oppressed in a situation where they can get ahold of them to defend themselves.

Heh, then there's always the Batman argument, that supervillains exist entirely because of the superheros. "You complete me," and all that.

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