When I was a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I took a course in “Introduction to Frost,” taught by Professor William O’Donnell. Professor O’Donnell might have been sent to us by central casting, from his bushy white eyebrows to his Harris tweed jacket to his red Chuck Taylors. And he delivered the goods.
Professor O’Donnell spoke with warmth and passion for the poetry of Robert Frost, who had been a friend of his. Though he was in his mid-sixties, there was a playfulness about him. I well remember the day he told us of climbing a young birch tree, as the narrator of “Birches” had done, to have it bend as he neared the top and set him back down on the ground. It was exhilarating, he said, though the branches had left their marks on him. “How old were you, Professor, when you did that?” one of my fellow students asked, picturing him — as we all probably did — as a young man. “Oh, last year,” he said. We all laughed.
He not only taught us unwashed first-years something about Frost and his poetry, he taught us how to read a poem, how to analyze it, bit by bit. To read through a poem with Professor O’Donnell was always an adventure, a series of illuminating light bulbs. Those lessons have stayed with me through the passing decades, though I claim no credentials as a literary critic.
With this being national poetry month, and with the Frost-inspired exhibition at the Bennington Museum, I find myself thinking a lot about one of Frost’s best-known poems, “The Road Not Taken,” which I would like to nominate as the most widely misunderstood and misinterpreted poem in the history of the world. It might have generated a multimillion-dollar inspirational poster industry and inspired scores of self-help books, but trust me — this poem isn’t about what you think it’s about.
Go and find a copy — you might even have one on the shelf — and read it through with me. We’re in the woods with our narrator, who’s standing at a fork in the road, and trying to figure out which way to go. We’ve all been there, I think. How will he choose? He doesn’t really say. But he does spend some time — a lot of time — talking about how well traveled the roads seem to be. In a poem that’s just 20 lines long, he devotes nearly half of the lines to the roads’ condition.
And his conclusion? Spoiler alert: It’s a coin flip. “Though as for that, the passing there/Had worn them really about the same,” the narrator says. It can’t be plainer than that. He knows he has to pick one, and so he does, telling himself that he’ll save the other for another day, even as he realizes that he won’t ever be back this way again.
It’s the last stanza, the surprise ending, that trips people up. Doesn’t the narrator say, “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”? Yes, he does. But notice where that line comes in: He realizes that someday, “ages and ages hence,” that’s going to be the story he tells about that day in the woods. Even though he’s just spent three-quarters of the poem telling a completely different story, that there was no discernable difference between the roads. And he’s going to tell it with a sigh — very likely one of regret for missed opportunities. After all, the poem isn’t called “The Road I Took.”
I’ve always thought that Frost’s more plainly worded poems, like “The Road Less Traveled,” are subject to being seen as simpler than they are. It’s really not an ode to rugged individualism after all, but it might say something about our desire to think of ourselves as rugged individualists. “Mending Wall” is like that, too. Sure, you can say that “good fences make good neighbors,” but go back and see who utters that line (hint: it’s not the narrator), and while you’re there, re-read that very first line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Oh, right. These poems may be written in simple English, but they’re not simplistic. (If you want to know how a literary expert interprets this poem, you could start with Katherine Robinson’s essay at the National Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/89511/robert-frost-the-road-not-taken).
Frost, of course, knew some of his poems were more vulnerable to misinterpretation than others. His chosen biographer, Lawrance Thompson, said that before giving a reading of “The Road Not Taken,” Frost warned the audience, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem — very tricky.”
I wish everyone could have had a class with Professor O’Donnell. I’m glad he was on the road I traveled. So go, read, think, and draw your own conclusions. And a happy national poetry month to you all.