Book Review: The Road Not Taken - Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr
My first experience with Robert Frost and this poem was being on the receiving end of a year 12 English Curriculum. Thankfully it was delivered by someone who had an appreciation of poetry and how to impart it to 17 year old teens in the middle of Australia. While not my favourite Frost poem, The Road Not Taken was among those studied.
From that point on, despite quite liking Frost’s work, I haven’t really sat down to give The Road Not Taken,a close reading since that time. I like many others probably remember its central message as being about taking the road less travelled, about not going along with the flow.
Here it is to jog your memory or if it’s your first time, to enjoy:
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.
Source: The Poetry Foundation
So what do you think? Is this what the poem is about? It’s generally accepted amongst learned folk that to read it as a tribute or paean to American Individualism is a misreading of the poem and indeed some of Frost’s comments on the poem suggest that he thought folks took it too seriously. Orr’s claim :
The poem isn’t (with all due respect to can-do individualism) a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the
story of our own lives.
He then goes on at considerable but interesting length to interrogate this idea. Orr’s approach is an interesting one. First he tackles Frost himself, as the man and as the constructed national treasure. I found this section while no means a biography, a good summary of the man and how he presented himself to the public.
Frost seems to exist in the public consciousness as some sort of folksy farmer sage spreading simple home truths when the reality is perhaps more interesting and more constructed. I come away from this section of the book having great admiration for Frost’s ability to generate authenticity.
Orr then moves on to the poem itself where he kindly lets us know that the confusing nature of this poem even tripped up the good friend and poetry critic Frost based it on. Essentially though this chapter is a close reading of the poem pointing out particular word choices or lines that support if not a different meaning than the poem is assumed to have, then raising doubt in the reader’s mind. Take for example the title of the poem: The Road Not Taken. It was originally titled Two Roads but it’s frequently misremembered as The Road Less Travelled. What was Frost trying to get the reader to contemplate right from the beginning? This is perhaps my favourite section.
The book could have stopped here and still have been a worthwhile read but Orr then goes on to discuss The Choice and The Chooser in subsequent sections. The former section is a significant investigation of choice or choices, how we make decisions and quotes scientific research on the process. If this section presents an examination of the process, The Chooser examines the different selves possible/present in the poem.
Finally Orr leaves us at the Crossroads, quite literally with - Epilogue: The Crossroads. Here we are left to contemplate, perhaps deeper than we have before the nature of choice and ourselves, in that most literally liminal of places – the moment before we decide our direction.
So is the The Road Not Taken. for everyone? It’s certainly not an academic text i.e. one aimed at other academics. You’ll want to perhaps have some interest in poetry and perhaps Frost himself. That being said if you love language and literature this is such a smooth flowing and engaging read I think you’d enjoy it anyway.
This review was based on an ARC copy.