Sunday, November 1, 2015

Book Review: The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong
David Orr

I once got into an argument about "The Road Not Taken". (As Frost himself observed, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem--very tricky.") Is the poem, as it seems on the surface, an ode to rugged individuality? Or is it, as the oh-so-sophisticated would have it, ironically subverting that idea, by suggesting that the choices we make ultimately don't much matter?

As I recall, I made myself irritating to all sides by insisting that the correct answer was: it's both. Poetry is supposed to be interpreted. Why bother with poetry if you want to clearly and unambiguously communicate one single meaning? That's what prose is for.

I am happy to report that David Orr, perspicacious man that he is, agrees with me. "The Road Not Taken" is about the act of choosing, not the choice, and it gives the reader the freedom to choose either road--either interpretation. For us, as for the speaker in the poem, the choice lies in the eye of the beholder: the two roads are "really about the same", but one of them seems less taken.

That's one of the things (in Orr's interpretation, anyway) that make it a peculiarly American poem. We make something of a fetish of choice. To deprive a person of free choice seems somehow un-American; witness many recent political debates. Whether the choices are consequential, or whether having them is a good thing, is different question.


  1. I spent a little too much time thinking about this kind of thing in college. As you know, I was a Comp Lit major. It was a mish-mash of literature, film, languages, a bit of everything. One of my literary criticism courses introduced me to Roland Barthes, a French literary critic. His _Death of the Author_ argued against the traditional practice of including the intentions of the author. As the title says, once the author hands the work to the reader (viewer, listener, etc.) then his/her intentions are irrelevant. The meaning depends on the mythology of the reader, rather than the history of the author.

    Despite how much I enjoyed reading _Death of the Author_ , I still think that understanding western canon will help you to understand the equivalent of in-jokes within literature. And knowing about the history of the author can give context that encourages trains of thought. But heck, read it, think about it, enjoy it, and don't worry what everyone else thinks.

    1. The Barthes view is a standard one in structuralist and (especially) post-structuralist literary theory. Fundamentally this is an anti-Enlightenment viewpoint. The text does not have or reflect any kind of "reality"; it simply is, and can only be understood in terms of conventions and perceived meaning. Ultimately, therefore, one perception is as good as another.

      I've never quite bought this. It's certainly true that a good book resides in the space between the author and the reader, and that therefore the book is actually different from reader to reader. But to state that, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien's religious views are irrelevant in understanding The Lord of the Rings is prima facie silly.

      Frost is an interesting case. He's one of the very few literary figures who is both a popular favorite and highly regarded by critics. I liked David Orr's book in part because he points out that this is not accidental, and furthermore that it is wrongheaded to regard the popular readings of his poems as one those your in-jokes, shared by the poet and us sophisticates, at the expense of hoi polloi.