Good morning! Today we'll be speaking about one of America's most well-known, certainly most popular, poets in the 20th century: Robert Frost. And the reason why I think, Robert Frost provides a very interesting illustration of popular poetry in America is, that I think there are certain discrepancies between the way in which is audience perceived him and the way, in fact, his poetry actually reads and should be understood. But just to give you a small background about Robert Frost since, as you can see from that handout
that I have given you, his dates are 1874 to 1963. I assume that most of you are unfamiliar with his personal appearances, with the way he looked and the way he was received.
But just to give you some notion of the popularity that this poet had in the 20th century: he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times in his lifetime. The Pulitzer Prize is one of the popular calibrations of fiction and poetry in America, but to win it four times is surely outstanding. And the reasons for that, I suspect, is that most of his audience saw him as a very recognizable, very gentle, very reachable/regional(?) personality with whom they could identify, or empathize. Usually, when people thought about Robert Frost, they saw a man who stood a little under six foot tall. He had a great shock of white hair. He spoke in a kind of gravelly voice with a New England accent, and it was always with New England that Robert Frost was associated, particularly the states of Vermont and New Hampshire.
When people thought about Robert Frost or thought about Robert Frost's poetry, because frequently people assumed whenever Robert Frost wrote a poem, the voice in those poems were the voice of the man. That the poet and the speaker of the poems were identical. And within those poems they found certain values that were associated with New England or more broadly America. And those values were affirmations of certain cherished notions or traditions that Americans deeply felt.
And so when they heard Robert Frost read or when they read his words silently on the page themselves they had a wonderful sense of a deeper affirmation of things that they felt and even more than that, since Robert Frost wrote in a language that was apparently straightforward, very plain, very simple, no fancy abstruce phraseologies, his audience felt very comfortable with him. Felt very comfortable with the man, with his language and with his values.
So, the uh. In many ways, as I say, Robert Frost the person and the poet seem to epitomize the American values and affirmations and straightforward language. And it was for that reason I suspect that he received those popular recognitions that he did. As illustrated by the Pulitzer Prize, given four times.
Having said that, having established Robert Frost, THE... if we had had a poet laureate in the early part of the 20th century which we did, we do now as it turns out, but if we had had a poet laureate, surely Robert Frost would have been our poet laureate for surely the last 40 years of his life.
But, and now here's the "but". On his 85th birthday, 1959, there was a literary party held in his honor in which a certain heresy was introduced by one of the leading literary critics of America at the time, Lionel Trilling. Lionel Trilling in toasting Robert Frost on his 85th birthday introduced the notion that Robert Frost's poetry is not as affirmative or cheerful or bright as most of his audience originally assumed.
In fact, he spoke of Robert Frost as one of our terrifying poets. He spoke of Robert Frost's poems as dark parables of the human condition. And this, needless to say, shocked the audience. When the response was recorded, for weeks, for months, even for years after that, people wondered how it was that Lionel Trilling had the gall or the nerve to question what turned out to be one of America's literary institutions, Robert Frost.
Frost himself, interestingly enough, never disputed Trilling's comments. He simply, in some sense, recorded his own discomfort at being looked at so closely. (up to 5:05)
Um, the... um, uh, almost concomitant with this, uhh... heresy, if we could call it, of Lionel Trilling. Um, the official biography of Robert Frost began to appear. This is written in three volumes, by Lawrence Thompson. Robert Frost, himself, had said to Thompson that he wanted him to be the official biographer, and he did so.
And, as the three volumes began to appear, certain aspects of Robert Frost's personal life showed up, which turned out to be, uh, in many ways, contradictory to the public image that Frost presented as this gentle, grandfatherly uh, retainer, or... or receptacle of American values and affirmations. Uhh, in fact it seemed as if uh, the personal events of Frost's life um, were entirely opposite than that of his public life.
That one of his children suicided is apparently a direct result of, of Frost's very harsh treatment of him throughout his life. Frost's relationship with his wife was apparently very bitter and awful one.
Frost's relationships with other poets, with critics, with people at the universities at which he's taught were very costing. Um, the, uh, one phrase that, which in some sense, to to my mind sums it up is told to me by the poet Anthony Hecht. So Frost said to him, "You know, when I die, I want the whole world to die with me."
Uh, now, as you can see, this particular uh understanding of the private Robert Frost is a great variance with, with, with the public Robert Frost. And it strikes me that, uh, one way in which we could, uh... test this particular kind of doubleness is to take a look at a poem of Robert Frosts, which to my mind, if it's not the most popular poem that Robert Frost has ever written, it's surely one of the top two.
Frost’s relationship with other poets, with critics, with people at the universities at which he’s taught were very caustic. The one phrase in my mind, which sums it up, was told to me by the poet Anthony Hecht, said Frost said to him, “You know, when I die, I want the whole world to die with me.” Uh, now, as you can see, this particular understanding of the private Robert Frost is at great variance with the public Frost, and it strikes me that one way in which we could test this particular kind of doubleness is to take a look at a poem of Robert Frost, which to my mind, if it’s not the most popular poem that Robert Frost has ever written, it’s surely one of the top two. And the poem that I’m referring to, of course, is “The Road Not Taken.” You should all have it on your handout. And as I said to my colleagues earlier, if there is a single poem that American high-school students would have read throughout their career, it would probably be this one or the other most popular Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And the reason why I choose this poem is that its popularity, I think, mirrors the kind of popularity that Frost had throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and yet I think a close reading will reveal some of the discrepancies that we might find in Frost’s personal life. So, before doing anything else, I’d like to, as I usually do in my poetry classes, is simply read the poem. The title is “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.
Now, my suspicion is that the appeal of this poem, not only in high-school curricula but also across the broad American public, resides in the way which people have seen this extraor—apparently extraordinarily simple poem as a parable for basic decisions one has to make in life. I mean, if you could think—it’s almost a cliché to be talking about walking down the path of life, the road splits in two ways; one has to make a fundamental decision about which road to choose. And then people think back about that, “Yes, that’s exactly what’s taking place in the poem,” and then they remember the ringing conclusion of this poem that says, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” And in those lines, in those last two lines, people hear an affirmation of nonconformity—Don’t go with the crowd. Go your own way. Just because everyone’s going down one road, you can take the path less traveled by. You can go in your own way, and that is the right thing to do because that will give you the personal character that’s necessary to have the sense of having had a meaningful life, as simply conforming to other’s expectations. Now, that last phrase, the last two lines of the poem, to my mind has sunk into the collective consciousness of Americans, along in the same way that, say, Henry David Thoreau’s famous remark in Walden when he speaks about marching to a different drummer has the same kind of affirmation: You go your own way. You listen to your own insights. You don’t pay attention to others. And perhaps I can give an illustration of this, because—I mean, just to show this is not simply something that has been understood by, let’s say, superficial readers, but also some of the most astute. And truly, at least in the illustration I have in mind, some of the geniuses in America have turned to this particular phrase as an illustration and affirmation of something they hold deeply true. Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the most outstanding architect in the United States, also wrote a great deal about his own life. Many say he wrote much too much about his own life. The—but right at the beginning of his autobiography, he retells a tale of walking out with his Uncle Peter, a Presbyterian minister, up through the small snow hills behind his house in Wisconsin. He describes his Uncle Peter as a ramrod of a man, a person who had a sense of moral certainty and direction, and in some ways was assigned the task of taking little Frankie out for a walk, not only for exercise, but also for moral edification. He let go of Frankie’s hand, and he walked to the top of a small hill. Frank, being seven or eight years old, ran this way, that way, picked up a flower, made a snowball—whatever. When he got to the top of the hill to join his uncle, the uncle grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, turned him around, and showed him the two sets of tracks: Uncle Peter’s which ran directly through the house to the top of the hill—the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, in physics and morality. And then there was this terrible zigzag, hither-there route that was taken by young Frank Lloyd Wright. And Uncle Peter, of course, wanted to illustrate what he should have done. And then Frank Lloyd Wright says, without making any reference, he says, “I took the road less traveled by…and that’s made all the difference.” Now, Frank Lloyd Wright assumed that anyone reading this would key into that Robert Frost poem. They know what he was talking about. If you’re in with the in-crowd, you say, “Uncle Peter and all those people who look in terms of conventional and consensus ways of looking at things, they go that way. But me, Robert Frost, and you gentle reader, we know what we’re really going to do.”
Now, I say that because one of the problems with a poem of this sort is that once you take a closer look at it, it seems that those kinds of values and those kinds of affirmations begin to dissolve. Now, I mean if we could, just go back to the poem, there are certain, to my mind, critical issues that people who have read this poem now for, let’s see—it was published in 1916, so that would make it 50, no 60, 70… uh, 76 years—the critical question that I put is this: How do we know that the person speaking in this poem took the road less traveled by? Well, one returns to the poem. It says, “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.” That first stanza is not talking about having gone one way or the other, but that point at the fork in the road, the speaker looks down one for as long as he could and then, he says, then took the other. Now, this is very curious because what this says is that the road that was examined is not the one that’s taken at all, and the other one’s taken very quickly. It doesn’t say looked at the other one for a very long time, looked down this one, then took the other very quickly. And he says, “As just as fair,” and then adds—and this is usually the lines that people recall—says, “And having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear.” And there it said, “Well, there it is. This road has grass growing on it, presumably that one doesn’t and, therefore, no one has trod on this particular path. Many people must have trod on the other, and therefore he took the road less traveled by.” And yet we continue and it says, “Though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same.” That is to say, in terms of whatever coverage that there’s on—if there’s grass on one, there’s about the same amount on the other. I mean whatever evidence you would use to say that the one is more or less traveled, simply say, “Wait a second, they’re about the same.” Oh, and then he adds even further, “And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” Now, I mean, we know from the “yellow wood” that this is an autumnal scene. One can easily imagine the situation where on an autumn morning the leaves have fallen down, and as happens with moist leaves, once people have walked on leaves, they will turn black from the oxidation. But this particular morning, the leaves are equally covering both roads. So aside from the fact that he is the first person there, there is no way that he can tell from either the grass—which now we know he cannot see because they’re both covered by leaves—there’s no way that this speaker, the person in this poem who has to make the decision, can decide on the basis of use which road is more or less traveled by. And he stops at that point having told us on the first “here’s what I’m going to do—I looked down, examined this road here. I’m going to take the other, and here’s why I did it.” But as it turns out, rather than give us evidence, it becomes equivocation. “I did this,” and then he equivocates, and then he equivocates yet again. And what we have at the—in the middle of that third stanza, he says, “Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Now, to my mind, this introduces a very different issue in this poem. What we have in those lines there is someone who’s saying, “Well, I’m taking this particular road here,” but as he says in the beginning of the poem, “I really want to go both ways. I wish I could do everything.” But, of course, each time one makes a decision to go in one direction, perforce a door closes someplace. You can’t go in the other direction. So, he says finally in this last stanza, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence.” And this I think is a very important shift in this poem because up to this point, the person who’s talking has been telling us about a decision that he’s recently made. Remember that the tense in this poem is such that he’s speaking at a time not too long after he’s gone down the one road. He’s thinking back about the decision that he made at that point, and then suddenly in the last stanza, he jumps forward to the future and says, “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” and of course a very interesting thing—what kind of a sigh is that? Is that a sigh of contentment, of nostalgia, of regret? Hmm. “Somewhere ages and ages hence.” And now we have the last three lines, in some sense, tells us the whole poem again. It’s a little collapse of the whole poem because he picks up the opening line and then jumps to the end, but notice the slight revision that takes place. He says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I”—hesitation—“I took the one less traveled by and that’s made all the difference.” Now, if you follow the point here, the evidence that has been presented to us in three stanzas beforehand contradicts that statement. That is to say the person who is speaking, who is saying, “I took the road less traveled by,” presumably from the vantage point in the future, “ages and ages hence,” from the vantage point of old age—“I remember back to that crucial decision I made in my youth, and I made the right decision.” Or at least it sounds that way. When people listen to the poem, as I said, they remember what seems to be that ringing affirmation in the last two lines, “I took the road less traveled by, and that’s made all the difference.” He doesn’t say in this poem whether it’s a good difference or a bad difference, but most people want to hear the good difference, and so they say, “That’s the way it must be.” And so taking the road less traveled by is a good thing, so good that it seems to blur people’s memories of the first three stanzas of the poem. Our desire as Americans to want to hear that affirmation of nonconformity apparently has—this has gone on now, as I say, for 70, 73 years, in which people have read the poem and most readers come away feeling that this is a poem that’s affirming on nonconformity, and yet I would suggest something entirely different. If we look at that, at the end we have a speaker of the poem who’s saying, “I took the one less traveled by,” telling us that in the future, “I will provide a happy rationalization of my experience. Whether the decision was a good one or a bad one, it’s going to look good to me way down the road.” That is to say that the speaker is revealing a characteristic, alas, about human nature, is that given a choice between thinking well of ourselves or not, we will think well of ourselves. We will even, if it comes it, bend the facts somewhat so that our understanding of ourselves is a positive rather than a negative one. But the reason I say that, that is to say that the last two lines, rather than affirming nonconformity might be revealing a capacity for rationalization or even self-deception on the part of people has to do with something that strikes me that most people have not focused on—that is, the title of this poem. This is not about the road that the speaker has taken. The title is “The Road Not Taken.” What’s on this person’s mind at the present moment of this poem, looking back on a decision he had made not too long before, is a terrible sense of “What if I have made the wrong decision?” It’s a sense of equivocation. And even more than that, it strikes me that one could very easily speak to this issue. Could it be that indecision and equivocation lead, in a psychological sense, inevitably to the kind of rationalization that we find at the end of this poem? Is there a cause and consequence if looked at carefully in this poem, which is suggesting something about the fallible human nature that we have, always to try to think best of ourselves when, in fact, we’re least certain of our bias. What I find astounding about this, I mean, surely however you want to look at the ending of that poem, the clear thing that remains is that the final two lines are not supported by, but rather denied or contradicted by the poem that proceeds them.
What I’d like to leave you with-- since I’ve been trying in this particular short time to make a point about Robert Frost, the man, and Robert Frost’s poetry—what I’d like to leave you with is this parallel: Surely what we now understand from Robert Frost’s biographies is that the gentle, grandfatherly New England farmer who spoke apparently so affirmatively and in such simple language about American values had a darker underside in his personal life and that he spent a good part of his public life in some sense masking or holding down or at least disguising that darker underside. As an illustration of that, we turn to “The Road Not Taken,” surely, I said, one of his most popular poems—and I mean that in both the best and now in a different sense, that is to say, a poem which has been popularly interpreted in one fashion, but a close reading of the poem reveals a darker underside, a darker—a depth that most people have passed by. And in an odd way, it might be particularly appropriate that the road not taken, this most popular of poems, is exactly parallel to Robert Frost, this most popular of poets.
All right, I’ll leave you there today.