Robert Frost (Even If We Read Him Right) Was Wrong


How many generations of high school graduates have been misled into thinking that it’s always good to do things the hard way because Robert Frost is popular and many valedictorians and civic leaders have poor close-reading skills?

If we read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” correctly, he is saying that neither of the two paths would have made a difference because the paths were functionally the same, but the speaker will claim to have been a pioneer when he is old and bragging to his grandchildren in a rocking chair on the porch, who will believe him, the little nitwits, because he will have so much darn gravitas, so who’s going to say he’s wrong?


The Road Not Taken                        by Robert Frost


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.


But are two paths ever the same? And if they are, are we ever the same walking down them? How much is the ground we are walking on and how much the weather and the clothes we chose to wear? How much the terrain itself and how much our choice of footwear? It occurs to me that this could be leading us into philosophy—gaah!—and it might be safest for us all if I just put my head down until the feeling goes away.

But I think it’s never only two roads, the right one and the wrong one. It’s about the million roads, all of them well trodden, and we simply have to figure out how to choose the one most likely to lead us home. Which of course necessitates how the hell to figure out what we mean by “home.” And it’s about how, when we look back, we reinterpret the past to make it look more coherent, more intentional, more like we planned the good outcomes. Yes, I meant to do that! (Suuuure you did…)

Getting Lost, Getting Found


So I was reading Robert Frost’s poem, “Directive,” about getting lost in a small, old town. He mentions Panther Mountain, so it is probably set in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It is full of Frost’s individualistic syntax, starting out:

“Back out of all this now too much for us

Back in a time made simple by the loss

Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather…”

My college freshmen would probably oversimplify this to “back in the day” but then we would lose the photographic detail and the lovely iambic pentameter (five feet of unstressed/stressed syllables) that is at the heart of much great poetry in English. He goes on to say:

“The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you

Who only has at heart your getting lost,

May seem as if it should have been a quarry—“

And this reminds me of the irony of anyone who has ever given directions and insisted, “You can’t miss it!” when we all know that is almost never true. Also, it reminds me of dreams I have often had about places I have lived, Middlebury, Vermont, Matsuyama, Japan, used bookstores in Boston long defunct, and small, hilly towns in New England and New York, when you are on the way to someplace else and slow down to drive by the statue to the men of the town who served during the Civil War. Often there is a small Congregational church, white wooden clapboard and a tall pointed steeple. And then, in a moment, the village is left behind and once more you are on a road from somewhere to somewhere else, and a forest of a hundred greens lining either side of your road.

“As for the woods’ excitement over you

That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,

Charge that to upstart inexperience.”

The urban soul hungers for green upon green: sprint, mint, old oak, malachite, jade, evergreen. The leaves overlap like Earth’s eyelashes, the whole forest flirting with you as you let the road drive you through and away, content to let it take more time than travel takes in even your small city.

“And if you’re lost enough to find yourself

By now, pull in your ladder road behind you

And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.

Then make yourself at home.”

We think we travel to get to another place, to achieve something: to participate in a conference, a wedding, a family meal, a family fight, a game, a job. But such things are simply the excuse for being on the road, seeing the unfamiliar multitudes of green, the all-too-familiar tarmac stretching out before and behind. Ideally, if you let it, even such simple travel can change you.

“Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”


Frost, Robert. “Directive.” Beginning with Poems. Ed. Reuben A. Brower, Anne D. Ferry and David Kalstone. New York: Norton, 1966. 330-331.