Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Question of Agency: Some Literary Considerations, Part II—(Re)Determining the Rules of Frost’s “Road”

(I know, I know. It's about time, right. Well, you'll get no excuses from me. I just haven't posted this. It's been sitting on my computer, waiting, calling to me. I finally decided to give in...)

This is part two in (maybe) a three part series on the question of agency in literature. Part one, and my lead in to part two, is found here. This essay, by the way, is a slightly revised and bloggified version of a short paper I wrote for my undergraduate literary theory class. I think it provides an interesting take on a very popular poem.

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”1 has traveled the high road to popularity. One reason for this may be due to its deceptively simple language and the poet’s perceived treatment of an issue central to human existence: the nature of free will and choice. Indeed, the notion that humans are essentially free to choose seems to pervade every twist and turn of the text, from the “two roads diverg[ing]” to the speaker’s supposed choice to follow the “one less traveled,” leading the casual reader to “sigh” at Frost’s intimate omniscience about how this less traveled road can make and has made “all the difference” in their own life2. Yet, a closer reading reveals that a “The Road Not Taken” is really an ironic tale of a determined existence, a life manipulated by some unseen fate whose hand has set the bounds in which the poem's speaker must walk a road without choices and, hence, devoid of free will.

To unfold this alternate understanding, we need to first consider Frost’s intended audience. Of this, George Montiero comments that “[i]n 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. […] Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas”3 The two men often took long countryside walks together. During these outings, Montiero relates, Thomas would

[r]epeatedly […] choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk[,] Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a ‘better’ direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets.3

On his return to New England, Frost penned “The Road Not Taken” as a sly jest at and for Thomas, whose regretful sigh is captured by the poem’s speaker.

The irony of this emerges when we consider that even Thomas failed to recognize that the poem was about himself. As he told Frost: “I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing [the irony of the poem] without showing […] and advising them”.4 Hence, without the poet overtly pointing to the poem’s subtle mischievousness, many have read his ironic jab as a nobly courageous and inspiring depiction of the human will. However, as we further consider the language Frost employs in the poem, we see that he prefigured Thomas’ suggestion and does indeed advise us how to see beyond the popular surface rendition of a life-changing decision made in the woods one morning, into a fated autumnal world built, ironically, upon an inflated sense of agency—the perceived power to create one’s own destiny—and directed in its chaos by some indifferently impersonal element.

In this light, the poem’s opening line is less a depiction of available options than it is an illusion that a choice needs to be made. For while these “two roads” appear to stand in opposition to one another, moving in different directions from a common point, which the speaker calls “the passing”5, are they really that different, as an allusion to choice presumes? After all, each is worn “really about the same” and both “equally lay [that morning covered] in leaves no step had trodden black”.6 Does this imply, as some readers suggest, that not all choices are black and white, but, instead, lie before us in varying shades of gray? Or, as still others assert, that this refers to the triviality of the choices made in life, that it ultimately matters very little which road we choose to travel?

Here I submit an alternate route, one signaled by the idea that the speaker feels “sorry [he] could not travel both”.7 To be sorry in lexical terms is to be characterized by or inclined to suffer physical or mental pain, grief, distress, or sorrow. Thus applied to “The Road Not Taken,” for the speaker to be sorry implies that he is experiencing some degree of sorrow, distress, or grief characterized by mental anguish. This degree of suffering could be caused by any number of things, including the notion that he has encountered regret because of some significant connection between the roads and his life. Else why the sorrow? If the roads simply typify two trivial choices, why such a fuss over the fact that he can’t travel both?

In relation to this, it proves enlightening to consider Frost’s use of the word “could” rather than “would” or “should.” “I would not travel both” signifies a simple refusal to choose, as in “I will not.” On the other hand, “I should not travel both” embodies the language of a restrictive commandment: “Thou shalt not,” implying that he could but because of some constrictive law, he knows he shouldn’t. But, “I could not travel both” bears a wholly different connotation. Of course, the speaker “could not” in reality walk the two roads at once, simply because no one can possibly be in two places at any given moment. Is it not probable, however, that the speaker could just choose one road and explore the other another day or even later that same day? This would allow the speaker to wander both roads and still be “one traveler.”8 If so, then why the lengthy deliberation?

Unless Frost possibly had something else in mind.

Following this vein, it becomes plausible that one road was metaphorically blocked, allowing the traveler to see down the road, but not to travel it, even if he was to return another day. To substantiate this claim, we need to psychoanalyze the characterization of “one traveler”. As I stated above, the speaker as one entity can’t actually be in two places at once. Hence, the condition of being “one” suggests that the speaker’s outer life must resonate with his inner life and that he possesses integrity, an attribute that leads him into a life of balance and focus. To reject such a life is to create a fragmented nature, causing an individual to becoming incomplete, not one. Surely attempting to travel two roads at once could bring someone to this state of mind, as when a person lives in and dwells on the past, yet tries to move forward in the present, to prepare for the future. One certainly can’t live in the past and “be one traveler,” for by so striving their present will be out of harmony: they’ll live in opposition to themselves and to nature, falling into cross-purposes with fate’s indifferent design, resulting in a diverse array of psychological incongruities.

Additional support for this reading comes from the way the traveler “looked down one [road] as far as [he] could / To where it bent in the undergrowth”.9 Again, we have the idea that the speaker could look down one road, but not travel it. This may indeed represent his past, the road he traveled to get to “the passing there”—his present.10 All he can really do with this road, then, is look down it “as far as [he] could,” dredging back as far as memory allows “to where [the past] bent in the undergrowth,” his thoughts dimmed by time, covered by the foliage of mind and forgotten. Yet, even after “choosing” to follow the “grassy” road, the traveler laments, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” as he holds to the past for a time even after moving leaving it behind.11

This establishes the idea that the past, the present, and the future, rather than laying down different paths, are fixed in a continuous chain, ordered, to employ a Biblical term, “from the beginning” by an unseen, irrational force characterized in the poem by nature, whose influence, as the falling leaves, covers all. In this light, the only clear “choice” for Frost’s wanderer is to move forward on the one road before him, his past irrevocably leading to his present, forever leading to his future. Certainly he could stay at the passing, but in the “yellow” autumnal wood, winter approaches, compelling him to move on, to follow the “less traveled” road not because he chooses to, but because he has to: there is simply no other road to take.12

In Frost’s concluding stanza, this aged wanderer, having traveled way upon way coerced thus by fate’s deterministic hand, inflates himself to the status of determinant by exhaling his sardonic tale that, years ago, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference,” purposely ignoring the inexorable reality that he played no determining part in his own life.13 Indeed, the only choice he really made, if he made a choice at all, was to leave the past behind; and even this was forged less by his own will than by outside forces which compelled him to move on, to “be one traveler.” His destiny was thus written in the annals of the universe long before his “choosing”; and, ultimately, at least in Frost’s estimation, this traveler is no different than those to whom he tells his tale: an insignificant pawn careening down a single, predetermined road, jilted to and fro by the unseen, the irrational, the impersonal, the indifferent, destined, in the final analysis, not to act but merely to be acted upon.


1 Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.”

2 Lines 1, 19, 20.

3 Montiero, George. Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988; Rpt. in “On ‘The Road Not Taken.’” Modern American Poetry. 2002. 15 Feb. 2005.

4 Pritchard, William. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. 1984; Rpt. in “On ‘The Road Not
Taken.’” Modern American Poetry. 2002. 15 Feb. 2005.

5 Frost 9.

6 10.

7 2.

8 3.

9 4, 5.

10 9.

11 8, 13.

12 1, 19.

13 18-20; italics added.