Robert Frost & The New England Renaissance

by George Monteiro

 

 

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A discussion of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," with references to Emerson, Dickinson, Dante, Longfellow. Also mentioned, Frost's "The Draft Horse," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

 

CHAPTER FIVE
Roads and Paths
 
When a man thinks happily; he finds no foot-track in the field he traverses.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Quotation and Originality" (1859)
 
"THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called "The Choice of the Two Paths," reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well. (1) In Reson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter "Y; " with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two paths branching off at the age when the child is expected to exercise discretion. In one design the "Two Paths" are shown in great detail. "On one side a thin line of pious folk ascend a hill past several churches and chapels, and so skyward to the Heavenly City where an angel stands proffering a crown. On the other side a crowd of men and women are engaged in feasting, music, love-making, and other carnal pleasures while close behind them yawns the flaming mouth of hell in which sinners are writhing. But hope is held out for the worldly; for some avoid hell and having passed through a dark forest come to the rude huts of Humility and Repentance." (2) Embedded in this quotation is a direct reference to the opening of Dante's Inferno:
 
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was the forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more. (
3)

 

From the beginning, when it appeared as the first poem in Mountain Interval (1916), many readers have overstated the importance of "The Road Not Taken" to Frost's work. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, did so when, announcing the appointment of the poet to the school's faculty; he recited it to a college assembly.
 
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. (
4)

 

 
"The Choice of Two Paths" is suggested in Frost's decision to make his two roads not very much different from one another, for passing over one of them had the effect of wearing them "really about the same." This is a far cry from, say; the description of the "two waies" offered in the seventeenth century by Henry Crosse:
 
Two waies are proposed and laide open to all, the one inviting to vertue, the other alluring to vice; the first is combersome, intricate, untraded, overgrowne, and many obstacles to dismay the passenger; the other plaine, even beaten, overshadowed with boughes, tapistried with flowers, and many objects to feed the eye; now a man that lookes but only to the outward shewe, will easily tread the broadest pathe, but if hee perceive that this smooth and even way leads to a neast of Scorpions: or a litter of Beares, he will rather take the other though it be rugged and unpleasant, than hazard himselfe in so great a daunger. (5)
 
Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word "roads" rather than "waies" or "paths" or even "pathways." In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, "Two paths diverged in a yellow wood," Frost reacted with such feeling- "Two roads! " - that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word "roads" and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, "he didn't let me get away with 'two paths!' " (6)
 
Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatory; Frost's readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of two facts of Frost's life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of the Inferno Dante is thirty-five, "midway on the road of life," notes Charles Eliot Norton.) (7) The first of these, an event, took place in the winter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, a general observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks in England with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.
 
In Robert Frost: The Thal by Existence, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant locates in one of Frost's letters the source for "The Road Not Taken." To Susan Hayes Ward the poet wrote on February 10, 1912:
 
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity. (8)
 
This portentous account of meeting " another " self (but not encountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) would eventually result in a poem quite different from "The Road Not Taken " and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties the moment with Frost's decision to go off at this time to some place where he could devote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream for future poetic use.
 
That poetic use would occur three years later. In 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. By all the signs he was ready to settle down for a long stay. Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas. Later, when readers persisted in misreading "The Road Not Taken, " Frost insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet. For Thomas had invariably fussed over irrevocable choices of the most minor sort made on daily walks with Frost in 1914, shortly before the writing of the poem. Later Frost insisted that in his case the line " And that has made all the difference" - taken straight - was all wrong. "Of course, it hasn't, " he persisted, "it's just a poem, you know. (9) In 1915, moreover, his sole intention was to twit Thomas. Living in Gloucestershire, writes Lawrance Thompson, Frost had frequently taken long countryside walks with Thomas.
 
Repeatedly Thomas would 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. ...Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid. (10)
 
If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, "The Road Not Taken" was intended to serve as Frost's gentle jest at Thomas's expense. But the poem might have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who in a different sense might also be considered a "friend": Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; whose poem, "My Lost Youth," had provided Frost with A Boy's Will, the title he chose for his first book.
 
"The Road Not Taken" can be placed against a passage in Longfellow's notebooks: "Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be ,-- a psychological romance of possibilities and things that do not happen. By going out a few minutes sooner or later, by stopping to speak with a friend at a corner, by meeting this man or that, or by turning down this street instead of the other, we may let slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed. There is no possible solution to the dark enigma but the one word, 'Providence.' "(11)
 
Longfellow's tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates the same qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost's dream encounter with his other self at a crossroads in the woods had a "subterranean connection" with the whole of "The Road Not Taken," especially with the poem's last lines:
 
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.
 
Undoubtedly. But whereas Longfellow had invoked Providence to account for acts performed and actions not taken, Frost calls attention only to the role of human choice. A second target was the notion that "whatever choice we make, we make at our peril." The words just quoted are Fitz-James Stephen's, but it is more important that Frost encountered them in William James's essay "The Will to Believe. " In fact, James concludes his final paragraph on the topic: "We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. ...If death ends all, we cannot meet death better. " (12) The danger inherent in decision, in this brave passage quoted with clear-cut approval by the teacher Frost "never had," does not play a part in "The Road Not Taken. " Frost the "leaf-treader" will have none of it, though he will not refuse to make a choice. Nothing will happen to him through default. Nor, argues the poet, is it likely that anyone will melodramatically be dashed to pieces.
 
It is useful to see Frost's projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas's characteristic regrets, to note that Frost's poem takes a sly poke at Longfellow's more generalized awe before the notion of what might have happened had it not been for the inexorable workings of Providence, and to see "The Road Not Taken" as a bravura tossing off of Fitz-James Stephen's mountainous and meteorological scenario. We can also project the poem against a poem by Emily Dickinson that Frost had encountered twenty years earlier in Poems, Second Series (1891).
 
Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being's road,
Eternity by term.
 
Our pace took sudden awe,
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.
 
Retreat was out of hope, --
Behind, a sealed route,
Eternity's white flag before,
And God at every gate. (13)
 
Dickinson's poem is straightforwardly and orthodoxically religious. But it can be seen that beyond the "journey" metaphor Dickinson's poem employs diction - "road" and "forest" - that recalls "The Choice of the Two Paths" trope, the opening lines of the Inferno, and Frost's secular poem "The Road Not Taken."
 
The "dark forest" in the tradition of "The Choice of the Two Paths" and the "forest dark" of Longfellow's translation of the Inferno also foreshadow the imagery of the famous Frost poem published in New Hampshire (1923), the last stanza of which begins: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. " (14) In spurning the word "forest" for "woods," a term that is perhaps more appropriate for New England, Frost was, whether he knew it or not, following Charles Eliot Norton, whose translation of the Inferno reads "dark wood" and who glosses the opening of Dante's poem: "The dark wood is the forest of the world of sense, 'the erroneous wood of this life' ..., that is, the wood in which man loses his way." (15) In "the darkest evening of the year, the New England poet finds himself standing before a scene he finds attractive enough to make him linger. Frost's poem employs, significantly, the present tense. Dante's poem (through Longfellow) employs the past tense. It is as if Frost were casually remembering some familiar engraving that hung on a schoolroom wall in Lawrence as he was growing up in the 1880s, and the poet slides into the picture. He enters, so to speak, the mind of the figure who speaks the poem, a figure whose body is slowly turned into the scene, head fully away from the foreground, bulking small, holding the reins steadily and loosely. The horse and team are planted, though poised to move. And so begins the poet's dramatization of this rural and parochial tableau. "Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though. / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow." And then, having entered the human being, he witnesses the natural drift of that human being's thoughts to the brain of his "little horse," who thinks it " queer" that the rider has decided to stop here. And then, in an equally easy transition, the teamster returns to himself, remembering that he has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. Duties, responsibilities - many must have them we think, as echolalia closes the poem, all other thoughts already turning away from the illustration on the schoolroom wall. And even as the "little horse" has been rid of the man's intrusion, so too must the rider's mind be freed of the poet's incursion. The poet's last line resonates, dismissing the reader from his, the poet's, dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations, and returning to the poet's inside reading of the still-life drama that goes on forever within its frame hanging on the classroom wall.

The ways in which Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" converses with Longfellow's translation of Dante are evident from other shared echoes and images. The Inferno continues:
 
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way:
But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet's rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
That night, which I had passed so piteously: (16)
 
What Frost "fetched" here (as in "The Road Not Taken") were the motifs of risk and decision characterizing both "The Choice of the Two Paths" and Dante's Inferno.
 
"The Draft Horse," a poem published at the end of Frost's life in his final volume, In the Clearing (1962 ), reminds us curiously of Frost's anecdote in 1912 about recognizing "another" self and not encountering that self and also of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In addition it is reminiscent of "The Road Not Taken." In each case - anecdote, autumnal poem, and winter poem - the poet must make a choice. Will he " go forward to the touch," or will he "stand still in wonderment and let him pass by" in the anecdote? He will choose the "road less traveled by" (but he will leave the other for a later passing, though he probably will not return to it). He will not succumb to the aesthetic (and perhaps psychological) attractions of the woods, which are "lovely, dark and deep," but will go forth to keep his promises - of both kinds (as Frost explained): "those that I myself make for myself and those that my ancestors made for me, known as the social contract." (17)
 
With a lantern that wouldn't burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
 
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
 
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
 
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
 
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way. (
18)
 
 
The "little horse" of the earlier poem is replaced by "the too-heavy horse" of the later one. The "woods" have now been replaced by "a pitch-dark limitless grove." The hint in "grove" is one of sacrificial rites and ordered violence. The "sweep of easy wind and downy flake" of "Stopping by Woods" is echoed more ominously in "The Draft Horse" in that after "the ponderous beast went down" "the night drew through the trees / In one long invidious draft." The man was alone; here he is part of an "unquestioning pair." "Stopping by Woods" was given in the first person. "The Draft Horse," like the beginning of the Inferno, takes place in the past. There is resolution in the former - even if it evinces some fatigue; in the later it is resignation. At the time of the poem and in an earlier day, the loss of a man's horse may be as great a loss as that of one's life - probably because its loss would often lead to the death of the horse's owner. And for the poet the assassination has no rhyme or reason that he will discern. He knows only that the man " came out of the trees" (compare the intruders in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" or the neighbor in "Mending Wall" who resembles" an old-stone savage armed"). Insofar as the poet knows, this act involves motiveless malevolence less than unmalevolent motive - if there is a motive. In the Inferno, the beast that threatens the poet's pathway gives way to the poet - "Not man; man once I was," he says - who will guide him. Frost's couple have the misfortune to encounter not a guide but an assassin. "A man feared that he might find an assassin; / Another that he might find a victim," wrote Stephen Crane. "One was more wise than the other." (19) It is not too far-fetched, I think, to see the equanimity of the poet at the end of "The Draft Horse" as a response to the anecdote, many years earlier, when the poet avoided meeting his "other" self, thereby committing the "fatal omission" of not trying to find out what "purpose. ..if we could but have made out" there was in the near-encounter. It is chilling to read the poem against its Frostian antecedents. Yet, as Keeper prefers in A Masque of Mercy (1947) - in words out of another context which might better fit the romantic poet of "The Wood-Pile"-"I say I'd rather be lost in the woods / Than found in church." (20)
 
 
NOTES 5. ROADS AND PATHS
1. See Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 175-81.
2. Ibid., p. 178.
3. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895), p. 3.
4. "The Road Not Taken," in Complete Poems, 1949, p. 131.
5. Chew, Pilgrimage of Life, pp. 180-81.
6. Quoted in Philip L. Gerber, "Remembering Robert Frost: An Interview with William Jewell," New England Quarterly 59 (March 1986) :21.
7. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. Charles Eliot Norton, rev. ed., vol. 1: Hell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), p. 1.
8. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960) pp. 87-88.
9. Gerber, "Remembering Robert Frost," p. 21.
10. Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Lawrance Thompson (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1964) p. xiv.
11. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Drift-Wood, in Outre-Mer and Drift-Wood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886), pp. 405-6.
12. William James, "The Will to Believe," in Pragmatism and Other Essays, introduced by Joseph L. Blau (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), p. 213.
13. Poems (1890-1896) by Emily Dickinson, p. 364.
14. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," in Complete Poems, 1949, p. 275.
15. Norton, Divine Comedy; p. 1.
16. Longfellow, Divine Comedy; p. 3. In "conversation" Frost occasionally referred to the Inferno; see Cook, "Frost in Context," in Frost: Centennial Essays III, ed by Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978) pp. 134, 138.
17. Quoted in Reginald Cook, Robert Frost: A Living Voice, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974) p. 81.
18. "The Draft Horse," in In the Clearing, p. 60.
19. Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines (Boston: Copeland and Day, 1895), p. 62.
20. A Masque of Mercy; in Complete Poems, 1949, p. 632.