Now itʼs time to finish with my “Taking ‘The Road Not Taken’” not-quite-an-essay (but award-winning) bit of literary criticism. —Oh, and I did get that punctuation of the title(s) correct, by the way.
Yesterday, the Grouches, Readers and Vacillators hammered out what kind of poem Frost had written, using what rhyme scheme. They even argued their way through a (supposedly easy) summary of the speaker and situation (and I do enjoy still how that presumably just-analytic step of paraphrasing turned — as always — already into the beginning of interpretation, as you could tell when they got to arguing about things again, like the color of leaves in the fall and how someone could tell whether it was fall in the the poem). Now they get down to the real nitty-gritty — attempting to understand/interpret what Frost has written…
Taking “The Road Not Taken,” part the second
VACILLATORS: Sounds good. I guess we understand it now.
VACILLATORS: Is that what it means?
READER 5: Maybe. That is how most people have interpreted the poem.
READER 1: But maybe we should look closer and find out if they’re right …
GROUCHES: Try “the road not taken,” huh?
VACILLATORS: Well, that is what the poem says. Isn’t it?
READER 2: As you all just did in trying to understand, the speaker looks down one road,
READER 3: but then he takes the other,
READER 4: just as nice,
READER 5: but it looks less used.
GROUCHES: Uh-huh. How does he know? It says both were covered in leaves.
VACILLATORS: And no one had gone down either that day.
READER 2: Like most decisions we make: we think one route may be more unusual, but each choice is new each time.
VACILLATORS: And that’s why the paths are both covered in leaves that no one’s stepped on!
GROUCHES: Now it’s getting deep.
READER 3: So we end up a long while later remembering the choices we’ve made and how they have shaped who we are, where we have gone, and who we’ve become.
GROUCH 1, 2, 3, 4: Uh-huh. Isn’t that what we just said?
VACILLATORS: I guess we’ve got it all figured out now!
GROUCH 5: I don’t agree.
VACILLATORS and READERS: What!!?
GROUCH 5: I don’t think you’re right..
VACILLATORS and READERS: You don’t?
GROUCH 5: If it’s such a goody-goody “make-the-right-choice” message, how come he’ll be telling the story with a sigh?
VACILLATORS: Because he’s happy?
READERS: A sigh of contentment. (sigh dramatically—happily)
GROUCH 1, 2, 3, 4: That sounds stupid enough to be right.
GROUCH 5: Nope. He sighs because he’s not happy. (sighs tragically) He blew it. He made the wrong choice.
VACILLATORS: Ooooh! —Is that right?
GROUCH 1: Why else would he remember some lousy fork in a road ages and ages later?
READER 1: And it explains why it’s called “The Road Not Taken.”
READER 5: But the title means the path he did take: the one not taken by anyone else.
GROUCH 4: But you just told us he doesn’t really know that no one else took it. He just thinks so.
VACILLATORS: “And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.”
GROUCH 5: Besides, in the poem only one road gets taken, the one the speaker took. The title has to be about the other one, the one he wishes he’d chosen.
GROUCHES: No one took that road. Not in the poem.
VACILLATORS: Ohhhh. That makes sense …
READER 1: … And it fits Frost, too.
VACILLATORS: It does?
READER 1: Yeah, it does. The critic Lionel Trilling praised Frost, on his eighty-fifth birthday, as … (big pause) … a “poet of terror.”
VACILLATORS: That’s “America’s best loved poet”?
GROUCH 1: Sounds kind of cool to me. I like it.
GROUCH 5: “And that has made all the difference!”
VACILLATORS: Oh, no! Is she right, after all?
READERS: It can’t be …
GROUCH 5: But I’ve got you there, don’t I? … A miserable poem about missed chances, wrong choices, and deep regrets.
GROUCH 1: Maybe this Frost guy isn’t so bad.
GROUCHES: That’s that, then. Guess we’re done.
READER 4: Not so fast. I think we’re still making a mistake.
GROUCHES: Mistake? We don’t think so!
READER 4: Yeah, we are. This is a poem, not a simple essay.
GROUCHES: What? Are you trying to shovel us some crud about “everyone sees your own message in a poem.”
VACILLATORS: Everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.
GROUCHES: Yeah, right.
READER 1: But that’s not right. You can’t make a poem mean whatever you want it to mean.
READER 3: In that case why even read the poem in the first place?
READER 5: A poem has a definite meaning, but not necessarily a single uncomplicated lesson, like we’ve been trying to find.
GROUCHES: Yeah? So what?
READER 5: So everything.
READER 3: We’re forgetting ambiguity!
READER 4: Ambiguity. The essence of poetry … and life.
READER 2: The important words in a poem generally work with more than one possible meaning at a time.
VACILLATORS: And we’ve been trying to understand just one.
READER 3: Like the problem we had with “yellow.”
VACILLATORS: Maybe it is supposed to be both fall and morning in one word there.
READER 5: Morning suggests all the bright, youthful possibilities we usually associate with the beginning of a day.
GROUCH 5: But also fall, when things die and fall apart, and winter is just around the corner.
READERS: Maybe the whole poem works like that.
VACILLATORS: And maybe it’s in a woods because of being out in nature with things growing—
GROUCHES: And dying!
VACILLATORS: … And because sometimes you can’t see where you’re going in the woods and get lost and confused—
GROUCHES: And make the wrong choices.
READERS: And one path may be less traveled and the other one more, but you don’t really know, at least not on one particular morning—
GROUCH 5: I told you it was morning.
READERS: … in the fall. —The new leaves make both paths alike.
VACILLATORS: It’s the same with that sigh.
GROUCHES: Maybe he’s depressed …
READERS: But maybe he’s happy about what he’s done.
VACILLATORS: It’s both!
GROUCHES: It can’t be both.
READERS: It can until you actually make the choice.
VACILLATORS: And it could turn out bad, or it could be good.
GROUCHES: You think so? —That’s really taking a stand.
READERS: Yes. And that’s why the final word is “difference.”
GROUCHES: Because making a choice makes a difference.
VACILLATORS: But until you choose…
READERS: And until you follow your choice to the end …
VACILLATORS and READERS: … You’ll never know what the difference is.
GROUCHES: And you’ll never know what the other choice would have meant.
READERS: The poem is about making a decision, so we have to choose which of its possibilities we prefer.
VACILLATORS: It’s about going your own way and being happy.
GROUCHES: It’s about making the wrong choice and screwing your life up royally.
READERS: Perhaps for you. It’s about choosing and making us feel—through the experience of reading the poem—the nature of choices.
So now do you understand why it had to be Vacillators caught between two extremes? That matches Frostʼs poem, and the act of interpretation matches the situation in the poem. I unashamedly like this little selection, which so many Advanced English classes had to read aloud after considering “The Road Not Taken” for themselves early in each school year (right after or before “Tergvinderʼs Stone”).
I do also enjoy the obvious intrusion of reader-centered criticism (a valid truth never previously understood or appreciated sufficiently before the late Seventies), and my favorite criterion for judging/appreciating a work of literature is expressed in the closing of this piece — good literature somehow creates within the reader/viewer an experience parallel or comparable to the meaning of the piece. I would like to pretend this little not-essay has done just that in its own unoriginal and reflective way.
Now if I could just make up my mind about my current employment… And one of these days I should explain why saying (as I have someone do in this choral essay) “everyoneʼs got a right to their own opinion” is just plain grammatically wrong.