Monday, June 18, 2012
The Road Less Travelled
Perhaps everyone is familiar with Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." It is referenced endlessly in positive thinking manuals, graduation cards, posters for offices and dorm room walls. People see it as a mantra for success, or for making the right choices--or at least for embracing the choices one has made.
Back in the 90s I remember my wise English department chair and colleague saying, in reference to that work, "That's the most misinterpreted poem in the English language." His contention was that the poem's speaker was NOT happy with the road he had chosen; in fact, the poem's title clearly shows that the speaker, even after many years, is focused on the road he did not choose, "and that has made all the difference." The speaker is not clear about what that difference is, but as with all of Frost's poems, there is ambiguity that allows for a darker interpretation. One must especially consider the speaker's sigh as he contemplates the choice that he made long ago, wishing at the time that he could go down both roads to see where they led, but knowing that he could only choose one.
For me, the poem is an acknowledgment of life's difficult choices and the fact that we often wonder, in retrospect, if we made the right one--but by the time we pose that question, the second option is long gone. There is also the suggestion, I think, that after the passage of time we will often focus not on the choice we made, but on the choice we didn't, because we wonder about parallel lives we could have lived, and about imaginary doppelganger selves who had different fates. When we are young, perhaps, we feel that our choices are limitless. When we are older, we may see them as far more restricted, and therefore we might naturally look back to a time of myriad options as something attractive.
Or of course both roads could be illusions.
I have had many "road not taken" moments in the past few years wherein I wonder how my life might have been different with another scenario. For example, I was dating another person when I met my husband, and I have never regretted marrying the man I did--but that doesn't prevent the writer in me from wondering about that alternative scenario. Had I married someone else--would I have had children? Would I live in the same town? Would I have the same career I do now? Would my life have been significantly different, or would my path have had a very similar course?
Alternately, I sometimes think of my chosen career(s) and wonder what would have happened if I had chosen something else (doesn't everyone have at least one occupation that they secretly wish they had tried?).
Do you see the poem's message as positive or negative? And have you ever indulged "road not taken" contemplations?