Matthew Buckley Smith on David Orr's The Road Not Taken
THIS AUGUST, DAVID Orr published two books with exactly the same title. One is a selection of Robert Frost’s early poems, which Orr edited. The other is a book-length essay distinguished from its sibling by a nail-on-the-head subtitle: The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. The day this book appeared, ten-thousand English majors across the nation clicked their tongues in unison and muttered, ‘I always meant to write that.’ And if you have never been buttonholed at a wedding reception by a drunken graduate student keen to explain why Frost’s poem doesn’t mean what you think it means, it’s probably because you were doing the buttonholing. Among those who read or write poetry today, nearly anyone could have written this book. But I’m glad it was Orr. What sets him apart is a love for poetry deepened by humility—both through an awareness of his own fallibility and through a sense of any critic’s smallness beside the great sweep of the poetic tradition. That and he’s good. Most of what anyone else would have to say about the subject, Orr sums up in the following five sentences:
Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.
According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our lives.
Well, there’s that taken care of then. Which leaves Orr 162 pages in which to address everything else “The Road Not Taken” has to offer a patient interpreter. The length won’t surprise you—it might even seem a little short—if you’ve spent any time with the poem outside of a commencement address. (Orr is curiously hard on “high school valedictorians,” a demographic surely no more culpable than college administrators and fathers-of-the-bride when it comes to bungling Frost’s most famous poem.) Before trekking any further into Orr’s book, though, let’s look again at the poem itself as a whole.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And peered 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;
But 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.
Orr considers the poem through a lens shop’s worth of perspectives, scarcely a one petty or perverse. He frames the poem within its historical context. He frames it within Frost’s biography. He frames it within Frost’s psychology. He frames it within the psychology of Frost’s biographer. He scans it and analyzes its prosodic peculiarities. He assesses its diction. He examines the life of the man believed to have inspired the poem (the little-read, very good, poet Edward Thomas) and even comments on this man’s interpretation of the poem. He grants some thirty pages to a data-rich overview of 21st-century pop-cultural and scientific perspectives on the nature of choice, with only an occasional seasoning of Frost citations to remind us of the eponymous poem. (Should Orr’s book have a readership a couple decades hence, it will undoubtedly be this section that comes off as most dated.) Orr frequently quotes Frost’s correspondence, but, like the New Critic he would never admit to almost being, he continually returns for evidence to the text of the poem itself. Orr trusts Frost’s observations about the poem, but, being a poet, he knows better than to trust them absolutely. As Orr notes, the poem is too rich to be reduced to any one message. And he is so smart, so measured, so thorough, in this humane and multi-faceted consideration of “The Road Not Taken” that one scarcely takes notice when he almost forgets to actually read it.
I mean ‘to read’ in a specific sense, something close to the sense it has in the phrase ‘to read aloud.’ Today, though some of us still read poems aloud on occasion, mostly we read poetry, like everything, silently to ourselves. Reading aloud for the purpose of comprehension—or even moving one’s lips along with the words—is now a practice associated exclusively with children and sub-literate adults. When TV actor Justin Theroux was interviewed recently on Fresh Air, he spoke of his childhood difficulties with dyslexia and mentioned that to this day, he has to read “in real time.” That is, though he can now read silently to himself, he still has to read at the pace at which the same words could be pronounced aloud. That ‘real time’ is considered slow is in itself startling. (I don’t have a learning disorder, but ‘real time’ is actually the fastest I can read. Anything denser than a magazine article, and I have to ride my brakes the whole way down.) For the audience of Fresh Air, and for the educated public at large, reading has simply become a business of the eye.
But midway through The Road Not Taken, Orr addresses Frost’s poem from what has become among critics an increasingly unusual perch. For a few pages, he treats the poem not as an objective document, an historical artifact, a cultural conceit, or even an ingenious composition, but instead as a human speech. I should note that, throughout the book, Orr frequently uses the conventional term ‘speaker’ to refer to the suppositional voice that produces the words of the poem. Seldom and only briefly, though, does he allow himself to consider the poem as a specific thing such a speaker does say. I know I’ve now become the buzz-killing tab splitter at the party, but as Orr often notes of “so many small differences in ‘The Road Not Taken,’” a fine distinction like this can make all the difference.
In good lyric writing, the goal towards which form, diction, and denotation all work together is firstly the evocation of the inner condition of the speaker. Orr knows this, and he makes the point several times in The Road Not Taken, in several different formulations, perhaps nowhere so crisply as when he says, “if you think of the poem not as stating various viewpoints but rather as performing them, setting them beside and against one another, then a very different reading emerges.” Yes! And “performing” is just the right word, too. Because performance requires a performer and, in a poem, the performer is the native habitat outside of which the material of the poem becomes confusing, mean, or simply trivial (no pun intended). Picking up the final stanza of the poem, Orr gives special attention to something many readers have overlooked, even those seemingly in the know. The poem's most popular misreading rests entirely on the last two lines of the stanza, while more informed readers prefer to hitch their high horses to the tense of the first two. Orr looks instead to “one of the most carefully placed words in this delicately balanced arrangement. That word is ‘sigh.’” Here, one more time, is the last stanza:
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.
The sigh is not, technically speaking, quite the center of the interpretation that follows. One could argue that Orr’s true point of concern is the word “with,” or—to be even pickier—the peculiar shading of the word “a.” But enough with the Edward Thomas routine. What follows is Orr’s case for why Frost, decades after writing the poem, pronounced at a reading that the sigh was “absolutely saving.” Orr’s argument is persuasive:
The speaker isn’t “telling this with a sigh” now; he’s saying that he’ll be sighing “ages and ages hence.” He knows himself well enough—or thinks he does—to predict how he’ll feel about the consequences of choice in the future. But if he actually knows himself this well, then it’s reasonable to ask whether he would, in fact, behave in the way he’s suggesting. Which is to say that the speaker isn’t necessarily the kind of person who sighs while explaining that many years ago he took the less traveled road; rather, he’s the kind of person who thinks he would sigh while telling us this story. He’s assuming that he’ll do something that will strike others as either self-congratulatory or paralyzingly anxious.
Orr aligns this reading with existing accounts of Frost’s historical friendship with Edward Thomas—specifically with the walks the two men took together, during which Thomas is said to have had a habit of fretting over which path to take. It’s a charming spin on the poem, and certainly a more humane one than any supercilious “commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our lives.” The only problem with it are the three stanzas that precede it.
The whole poem, you see, is full of contradictions. The speaker doesn’t just change his story about the roads’ comparative travelledness one time. He changes it twice. And he doesn’t, as Orr suggests, spend a long time at the crossroads considering the two roads and dithering over which to take. Instead, he spends a long time at the crossroads considering one of the two roads before shrugging and taking the other as “just as fair.” According to the speaker’s account, we can’t say for sure that he took the road less traveled, but we can say that he took the road less examined. He tells us he “kept the first for another day,” and yet two lines later he says he “doubted if I should ever come back.” He does forecast a personal future of long-faced, possibly tipsy storytelling. But there’s nothing in the poem to suggest that this future hasn’t already begun. In fact, the whole poem makes much more sense if, instead of reading those lines as if they said,
I shall only begin telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence,
we read them with an openness to the possibility that they might mean something closer to
I shall still be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.
This reading would, at any rate, be far more consistent with the recursive, emotionally wavering manner of both the poem and every long-faced, possibly tipsy storyteller I’ve ever met in my life. It would also be consistent with the fact that the speaker is of course already telling this, in exactly these words, in the exact poem we’re now reading.
Orr closes the book, as promised in the subtitle, by finding America. The case he makes for how to find it is a fair one. America, the land of opportunity, is also the land of individualism. So it only follows that we as Americans would be quick to read a message of go-it-alone rebellion into a poem about choice, regret, and self-knowledge. We believe in the self, which means we believe both in finding and in making it, and the ambiguities in Frost’s poem serve all of the above. (One might add that we in America also enjoy a proud tradition of reductive Puritanical speechifying, especially when it comes to art and its instructive value, so a poem that can be made to mean that one should follow only the loneliest, least-trammeled path—well, that’s a poem you can invite to Sunday supper.) As Orr states in the introduction, the “assertion that everyone is entitled to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ assumes that a path can be chosen that will make that pursuit possible. Frost’s lines simultaneously embody and undercut these ideas, but the ideas themselves are as American as action movies.”
The case that the attraction held by “The Road Not Taken” resides in such essential American impulses is pretty convincing. And by the book’s end, Orr has even reasonably complicated the matter. America’s vision of individualistic decision-making has a bright side and a dark one. On the one hand, there is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” and on the other there is de Tocqueville’s worry, “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him.” In this refusal to resolve the poem—or America—into a single interpretation, Orr honors his own earlier assertion that “poems, after all, aren’t arguments.”
But as he approaches the book’s final pages, something strange begins to happen. In the earlier chapter on “The Choice,” in which Orr discusses the tendencies of popular scientific and philosophical studies of the self, he makes a specific complaint about this sub-genre:
A curious pattern emerges in many of these books: The author puts forward a convincing argument that choice as we usually understand it is largely an illusion, then he quickly shifts tracks, suggesting that somehow, by becoming more aware of its illusory nature, we can make it more concrete. The “how” becomes a “how to,” probably because most authors intuit that people want to know about the machinery of choice only if it turns out that they can put at least a finger on the controls.
As committed to difficulty and intolerant of pandering as Orr seems to be, he too begins to show signs of authorial slippage as the book approaches its final pages, even if he preserves a whiff of scholarly skepticism. After introducing the civilizing element of Emma Lazarus’ similarly quotable if less conflicted poem, “The New Colossus,” Orr closes his essay with the following meditation:
We are the threshold nation, the American self-myth says, offering doorway after doorway, behind which lies a new beginning.
This may be true, or nearly true. But there is a quieter, yet no less persistent, corollary: Those who pass through those doors will one day lift their own small light in a yellow wood, where two roads diverge. And it will make all the difference.
As mitigating conjunctions go, this ‘but’ is whisper-thin. I must confess my skepticism of any non-joking attempt to define the soul of any nation. If Orr does deliver on his promise to find America, though, it is perhaps less by identifying one essential American quality than by enacting a different one. The most quintessentially American thing about The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, is its preoccupation with “finding America.”
Since the invention of America, Americans have made a national pastime out of finding ourselves. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to “I Hear America Singing,” from Huckleberry Finn to the House Un-American Activities Committee, from the ‘log cabin and cider candidate’ to ‘freedom fries,’ we have quested, labored, sloganeered, and tortured our way towards some version of an essential self. Every fourth movie (or book) that comes out has a two-word title the first word of which is ‘American.’ Whatever the occasion, Americans have always had an appetite for any new effort at defining ourselves. Orr’s book follows in this long tradition, and his contribution to it is as thoughtful and persuasive as any.
MATTHEW BUCKLEY SMITH is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World, winner of the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Carrboro, North Carolina.
WHAT TO READ NEXT: Here was a book that was going to really tell it like it is, except in some literary, left-of-Trump sense.