Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" is a well-known poem that many of us read back in middle school or high school. Everyone thinks it's an inspirational poem, a piece that encourages us to think for ourselves and not follow the crowd. Most critics, however, see the poem as an ironic piece, a poem that tries to rationalize a choice that was identical to the other. Consider the last stanza:

"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."

Most people read this literally: The sigh is one of contentment, and the speaker is glad because he's better off for having taken the road less travelled by. But this is wrong. (And why is he better off? You could equally validly interpret this negatively: The sigh is one of regret, and the speaker is remorseful because he's worse off for having taken the road less travelled by. In this case, we should all be conformists and stick rigidly with the group!)

If you look at the second and third stanzas, you'll see that the speaker himself notes that neither path is actually more travelled than the other. After all, he says that "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same." And if you pay attention to those two lines, then the last stanza (the one copied above) makes sense: The speaker's claiming that his choice "has made all the difference" is ironic because he's trying to justify a decision that was essentially arbitrary -- the two paths were identical. The speaker's sigh adds to that irony. What was at the time merely a choice between two equal unknowns has been mythologized into a story that seeks to elevate his decision into something that changed the course of his life. Those to whom he tells his story in the future will be led away with a false sense of grandeur, but we on the other hand know the naked truth.

So why did I bring up this poem? I read an investment article today, and the article's author, explaining his contrarian position, committed the common sin of believing "The Road Not Taken" was an ode to individualism. (At least he didn't commit the other common sin of believing the title to be "The Road Less Travelled.") It's very tangential, I admit, but there you have it.

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