Today a poem that has been haunting this blog for several weeks in one way or another. It’s final lines are some of the most quoted among the American oeuvre, and it is truly a thing of elegance. However (and I'm indebted to Richard Strier here), a closer reading of the whole poem suggests the lines are often misquoted, or at least misunderstood. Like Homer Simpson, we ‘fastforward’ the poem and wind up at its conclusion before we’ve understood its intent.
The roads diverge, but the traveller says they were ‘just as fair...really about the same, / And both that morning equally lay’ untrodden. He chooses one, and leaves the other for another day, knowing he will not come back, because ‘way leads on to way.’ Already there is duplicity, or at least inconsistency, in his thoughts. Next comes deliberate blurring, as his choice between equals becomes a romantic tale told ages hence, and with a sigh. Time and distance soften and warp his view of the choice he made. The ‘difference’ at last is not coloured in - it could be either good or bad; his sigh could be sweet or sad.
The poem is often read as a statement of bold individualism, the romance of Whitman or Thoreau. Yet it seems to be more about the tricks of memory and the narrative impulses of the mind. About how telling gives shape and purpose to a life of indifferent alternatives, of myriad minor choices, in which way leads on to way, and you can see the way you came only when you look back. Better known by its last lines, the poem is actually called ‘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 marked 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.