Thursday, April 2, 2020

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Here's a close reading of Robert Frost's little masterpiece of ambiguity, "The Road Not Taken". It's a poem commonly oversimplified, with one of the two likeliest interpretations almost always overwriting the other, so this reading will seek to bring out the work's often overlooked complexity and difficulty.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

We are with a wanderer in the woods, some latter-day Thoreau or Muir or John Burroughs, an American Romantic naturalist escaping urbanism to commune with the wilderness. But we are also in a more specifically literary elsewhere. Any poem that begins with a speaker "in a yellow wood" should remind us of Dante at the opening of the Inferno, lost in a symbolic selva oscura, a dark or shadowy woods. This echo, however faint, should put perceptive readers on guard against an unproblematically optimistic interpretation of the poem. We are dealing here with something more than an archetypal American nonconformist's self-congratulatory ode to individualism. Something different and darker is also going on.

The most important word in the line--indeed, arguably the only word of poetic import, since the others serve simply to state a situation and construct an allusion--is that curious adjective, yellow. Why not 'an autumn wood,' or 'a colored wood,' or even 'a turning wood'? Why does Frost characterize the wood by specifying a single color? (Most North American woods contain more than one species of tree and thus turn multiple colors in the autumn.) This word choice, like the infernal allusion in which it is embedded, is Frost putting us on guard again. The color yellow suggests not freedom and self-determination but weakness and subjection to sickness. It is the color of excrement (urine), of jaundice, even of death. More colloquially, yellow connotes cowardice rather than courage (In Frost's day, cowards were commonly called "yellow."), so a wood of this color should trouble an interpretation of the poem as an encomium to the courage to choose an untrodden path.

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

Far from eagerly choosing the less trodden way, the speaker regrets the necessity of choice. Like all of us, in the honesty of our ids, he wants it both ways, wishes life were both-and instead of either-or. If only he could miraculously Jehovah himself into multiple personalities and still remain a single entity (yes, Frost is slyly, satirically nodding toward the three-in-one dogma of the Trinity), he could dispel the anxiety--technically, existential anxiety--that keeps him paralyzed here at the fork in life's road.

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Peering into a possible future, he can see only a short distance, is blind to where the path might lead. But more interesting than this banal paraphrase is the fact that he chooses to look down this path seemingly at random: it's a toss-up; neither path beckons, and he could look either way. We might also note Frost's choice of the word undergrowth as another darkening device. Slant-rhyming with 'underground' and used in conjunction with the speaker looking down, it again faintly rings the dark Dantean bell. One of these paths might lead to an Inferno, the other to a Paradiso; inability to choose leaves him in a Purgatorio of angst.

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And this most momentous choice is, like the lesser choice two lines earlier, seemingly random, a coin-flip. The two paths are essentially indistinguishable. The choice is a monument to that boyish 'whim' Emerson celebrates in "Self-Reliance": "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company..." (And just as we oversimplify this poem by reading it as Emersonian self-congratulation, we imbecilize Emerson by ignoring the proto-Nietzschean darkness in his work.) In Frost's twentieth-century context, it can be understood as the necessary Sartrean existential choice performed in a world of Camus-esque absurdity and meaninglessness. Like every important life-choice, it's a leap into the unknown.

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

And immediately our speaker denies the whimsical, absurd nature of his choice and begins to retrospectively rationalize it. He chose this second path not at random--perish the thought!--but because it was grassy and less worn. The choice, thus rationally arrived at, defines him as a ruggedly individualistic nonconformist, one who chooses the path others fear to tread.

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.

But he can't even convince himself that he has made a rational choice, for the evidence of his senses, that empirical 'best evidence' of scientific rationality, forces upon him the fact of similarity. Neither path is noticeably less trodden, neither road not taken by common travelers. He has chosen a path as well-traveled as the other. His ego-affirming, archetypally American identity is founded upon nothing more than a momentary delusion. (We would not go too far afield were we to mention the comparable mentality of Trump supporters. Believing themselves bravely nonconformist in their denial of 'political correctness,' science, decency, reason, etc., they are in fact as slavishly conformist as the stupid red hats they wear.)

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

From its opening interjection to its closing exclamation point, the line rings as false as a paper bell. Again, the speaker can't even convince himself, as the next lines show.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Unidirectionality is the tragedy of time. It can go only forward, never back, never really repeat. Even if the chosen path loops around to this fork again, we will have been changed by our going and will re-arrive as slightly different selves. The choice is once and forever, and therein lies the root of existential anxiety, leading to a vertigo even more paralyzing than the one that rendered Jimmy Stewart incapable of saving Kim Novak. Frost's narrator knows this, but represses the knowledge as soon as it worms its way into consciousness.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The sigh is a carefully crafted Frostian ambiguity. We sigh in disappointment, frustration, yet also in times of intense happiness, contentment, satisfaction. Here it might signify an irruption of bad conscience before the narrator's self-protectively delusional final pronouncement.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

Why the pause, why the Dickinsonian dash? I--I think it dramatizes the speaker's final choice. Recounting his tale, he can either tell the truth of randomness and contingency, or he can ease into self-mythology. Of course he chooses the well-trodden path of mendacity.

I took the one less traveled by,

A lie, as we know. The paths were equally worn. With this bit of deception, and self-deception(?), the speaker eases himself into the cultural role slotted out for him: he is the self-made, self-determining American man; the rugged individualist, the proud nonconformist (Emerson: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."), the walker along the road less traveled. But the slot is not a flawless fit. That repetition of I is a sign of anxious self-doubt. On a level deeper than his imagined lie, he's so uncertain about himself that he must speak the self-signifying pronoun twice. The gentleman doth protest one syllable too much.

And that has made all the difference.

At the beginning of this reading, I called the entire poem a "little masterpiece of ambiguity," and that's also a fair description of its last line. As in the writings of Jacques Derrida, interpretation here centers upon one's understanding of difference. The word is a hinge upon which the line (and the entire poem) turns toward optimistic and pessimistic readings. Optimistic interpretations swing difference in a positive direction, hearing the speaker say that his life has turned out much better than if he had taken the other path. Pessimistic interpreters read a negative difference; we hear the speaker sigh in disappointment at the beginning of the stanza and understand him to be lamenting the botch of his life and the fatal choice that caused it.

Is one interpretation more valid than the other? When I began this close reading, I was tempted to say no. I intended to end the reading in a classic deconstructive aporia, a point of radical undecidability between mutually exclusive interpretations. I was then going to point out the ideological distortion that promotes one reading over the other. But over the course of this writing, I have determined that the poem is considerably less ambiguous, and the ideological distortion much more severe, than I had imagined. As I hope I have demonstrated, the pessimistic reading is clearly more valid than the optimistic. It goes more deeply into the text, teases out Dantean allusions, and deals forthrightly with contradictions (e.g., the lack of substantial difference between the paths) that an optimistic reading must either finesse away or ignore.

Why, then, out of two competing interpretations, one substantially more convincing than the other, do most general readers choose the facile positive over the complex negative? Likely for the same reason that strict party line American voters will identify as 'Independent' when a pollster calls. The hegemonic ideology of our culture values the appearance of independence, individuality, autonomy, freedom. Americans mouth the words and feel their power even when they belie them in every moment of their lives. We are therefore ideologically primed to accept the optimistic interpretation, even in the face of contrary textual evidence. The extent to which we read "The Road Not Taken" as a positive statement of nonconformity is a good measure of the extent of our ideological programming. When we read Robert Frost's poem, the poem also reads us.

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