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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.

It's Burns Night.

Traditionally, I'd inflict the entirety of Tam O'Shanter on you on this night, but it's a bit long and my head hurts, so instead I give you the 1793 poem "Sonnet on the Author's Birthday." Please enjoy.

On hearing a Thrush sing in his Morning Walk.

SING on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough,

Sing on, sweet bird, I listen to thy strain,
See aged Winter, 'mid his surly reign,

At thy blythe carol, clears his furrowed brow.

So in lone Poverty's dominion drear,

Sits meek Content with light, unanxious heart;
Welcomes the rapid moments, bids them part,

Nor asks if they bring ought to hope or fear.

I thank thee, Author of this opening day!

Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!
Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys—

What wealth could never give nor take away!

Yet come, thou child of poverty and care,
The mite high heav'n bestow'd, that mite with thee I'll share.

This is a poem, and it's quite long, so I put it behind a cut.

If you like it... I'm glad.

The Doctor, I believe, will like it.

In any case, I love him very much. This is for him.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky