On Saturday, as I was driving to Saginaw Valley State University, I happened to hear the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. It was actually more interesting than average for that particular program, beginning with a discussion of <i>Roots</i>, and some interesting facts about its transition from print to film. If you’ve ever heard Writer’s Almanac, you know that Keillor always closes by reading a poem. Usually the poem is one I’ve never read, by someone I’ve never heard of (but then, I’m really not very knowledgeable about poetry), but on Saturday it was “The Road Not Taken”. Which could not be more familiar.
I imagine that almost everyone reading this has heard this poem; it’s the one that starts “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / and sorry I could not travel both…” and ends “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all of the difference.”
Everyone’s heard this one, it’s part of the canon, and it is to my knowledge invariably taught to schoolchildren as a voice in favor of doing the nonstandard thing, of finding your own way, of notn being afraid to be different, of taking chances, etc.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I realized that that’s the wrong way to read the poem. (I’m pretty sure the origin of this idea came to me from one of the radio shows I compulsively listen to, presumably either This American Life or RadioLab, but a cursory search didn’t identify the source.)
The thing to notice is that, in the final stanza, the speaker does not say that he chose the path less travelled. He says that HE WILL SAY that he chose the path less travelled. Indeed, when the narrator examines his choice, “Both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” There’s nothing to base a choice on. The only time he actually hazards that there is a discernible difference between the roads, he immediately backpedals. “Though as for that, the passing there // had worn them really about the same.” They are essentially indistinguishable. The author is not saying that he chose one path over the other for any great reason. The point is not that choosing the path less travelled leads to success, indeed he’s not even saying with confidence that he’s choosing the part less travelled. The narrator is saying that he will look back on this choice as if it were pivotal, that he will tell the story as though it were.
Don’t mistake me, I’m not criticizing the poem or the poet, far from it. I still cherish this poem now that I understand it better, maybe more. If anything it seems truer. More comforting. We go through our lives, we’re faced with a lot of choices. Sometimes, often, there’s no good basis for a decision, but we choose. And we go through life’s journey, and where we end up is based on our achievements and our good decisions, but at least as much on our arbitrary choices and random happenstance. And when we look back on our lives, we make up a story. We make up our life story looking back on it. We decide, by how we tell the story, where the defining moments in our life were.