June 19, 2013
Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken"
On this day in 1915 Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" was first published in The Atlantic Monthly. Frost had recently returned to the U.S. after a two-and-a-half year stay in England; that the English had been first to publish and praise him, and that the Atlantic had rejected his poems -- "We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse" -- was on his mind. With the British collections now being praised at home, Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic, declared to Frost that he was eager for any new poems, a moment Frost enjoyed:
Pretending to be taken aback, Frost asked Sedgwick if he were sure he wanted to publish Frost's poems. "Yes," said Sedgwick. "Sight unseen?" asked Frost. "Sight unseen," said Sedgwick. Pulling from his pocket the three poems he had read at Tufts only the night before ["The Road Not Taken," "Birches," "The Sound of Trees"], Frost waved them under Sedgwick's nose, while, according to Frost, Sedgwick made little grabs for them. "Are you sure that you want to buy these poems?" Frost inquired. Sedgwick said of course he was. "Then," Frost said, releasing the papers to Sedgwick, "They are yours."
Or so the story is told by the Atlantic; other tellings, whether by Frost or his biographers, dress it up or down. Frost also described his poem in various ways: it was a satire of an indecisive friend; it was "tricky" and ironic, the speaker more egomaniac and self-mythologizer than pathfinder. One 1912 letter describes "two lonely crossroads" in "practically unbroken condition" and neither "much traveled"; Frost, walking one path, is surprised by a man who "looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other"; he expresses wonderment at "this other self," and at some meaning, "if we could but have made it out."
The biographies suggest a reading darker still. Frost returned to America in 1915 to poet-farm and to become famous: "There's room for only one person at the top of the steeple," he said, "and I always meant that person to be me." His elbowing self-promotion and "barding about" took him away from the farm and, his wife kept saying, his best self. The apparent toll on the family -- only one of his six children had anything approaching a full, sane life -- left Frost with regret for a life he would describe as "outrageously self-indulgent":
All this sickness and scatteration of the family is our fault and not our misfortune or I wouldn't admit it. It's a result and a judgement on us. We ought to have gone back farming years ago, or we ought to have stayed farming when we knew we were well off.
But as some point out, all this makes the closing "sigh" in one of the world's most familiar poems even more deeply ambiguous:
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.