Tuesday, August 9, 2011

If we could see all all might seem good

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily I found this wonderful story about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. I've been thinking about Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" since it was read at a Bar Mitzvah I went to recently. My sense is that a lot of people think of the poem as a celebration of individuality, of marching to the beat of a different drummer, of being different. But when the same celebration of being different is everyone's favorite poem then something seems wrong to me. And I noticed during the reading that Frost (or the narrator) describes the two paths as being "really about the same." The reference to looking back with a sigh at the end of the poem also suggests that it isn't meant as a celebration. In short, I think this poem is often misunderstood.

Anyway, here's a very fine poem by Thomas, which ends with these lines:
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
The following is too silly to belong here, but while I'm on the subject here's a play on Frost that I came up with a few years ago:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I would not ask which I should take
And that is because of my vas deferens.

(Explanations kill jokes, but just in case it's necessary: men are notoriously unwilling to ask for directions.)


  1. Yeah, I had a poetry prof when I was an undergrad who drove the class crazy objecting that the poem was not about the importance of taking the hard/untraveled/etc. road. I don't recall him offering an alternate reading, except to say that it was just a poem about taking the less traveled of two paths. (As I remember it, period. But my memory is hazy on this, and perhaps he went back to the sigh, too...I think he might have been making a point about multiple interpretations by being painfully literal-minded about the poem...)

    PS: Your version is nice, too. You should make some t-shirts and get rich.

  2. Thanks. I think making t-shirts and getting rich might be better than my plan to win the lottery.

    I guess the alternate (correct) reading is that it's a sort of joke about pessimism or Eeyore-ism or self-blame. But that's on the naive view that poets are authoritative on what their poems are about.

  3. One of the most clichéd and overused quotes from Finnish poetry is from Aaro Hellaakoski's Huojuvat keulat (1946):

    Tietä käyden tien on vanki
    Vapaa on vain umpihanki

    which one could roughly translate as

    Thou keepest to the road? It imprisons thee
    Only unbroken snow would set thee free

    What is interesting is that there are two competing readings of this as well. Some people use it the way people commonly use the Frost poem, while others, on the contrary, use it to snicker at the whole idea the Frost poem is popularly taken to embody. But in the case of Hellaakoski (a high-minded and somewhat sententious nature poet), it wasn't intended as mockery by the poet himself! So the correct reading and the misreading switch places in comparison to Frost.

  4. Thanks, Tommi. That's interesting. The wise view seems to be either that it doesn't really matter what path you take or else that you can never know what difference it might have made, so there's no point worrying about it. That seems to be what Frost thinks, it's suggested by the line of Thomas's that I used as the title of this post, and it's roughly the conclusion of Gary Gutting's piece in The Stone today (we're all going to die some time and living longer might be worse, so just be sensible about your health and don't obsess about the findings of "recent reports"). I find it hard to believe that it doesn't matter what we do, but it seems right that it doesn't pay to worry too much about things we can't know, like what might have been if... It's part of the same idea that we shouldn't congratulate ourselves either for the wisdom of our decisions. Even if the road taken or not taken did make all the difference, we can never know this. Unless the path we take is off into the snow and we die of exposure.