Robert Frost once told of a pair of roads. And they wandered childlike through drifts of autumn leaves. And they had no name.
But he said to us, implicitly: Pick one.
Pick one? A road, ambling in mad darkness? To where? For what? And—the wind!
The first few readings of that poem left me wriggling for room, cramped by necessity. I saw Frost’s imposition of choice, and knew it must be one thoroughfare or the other. Choose. Pick. Decide. Roll the dice. Go. For tomorrow comes soon. And tomorrow, you cannot make this choice.
But what if Frost had no such message, and we have only foisted that upon him? What if he merely stood at the nape of winter and saw only what was, no action incumbent upon him? What if he saw two paths and merely wondered? Wondered if, should he take either, he would land too deep in strange places when winter came?
He says to himself, and therefore, to us: Pick one. Or does he? Does he just invite us down a Carrollian rabbit hole, and dream out loud, “What if….?”
Let’s throw off the veil and see a new face of the old. Suppose, in a frosty mix of intrigue and regret, Frost looks back at two serpentine paths not as one taken and one not—but as both untraveled.
He says this at the close of the poem, and I think it particularly telling:
“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.”
“I took the one”—not either of the two—”and that has made all the difference.” Put another way, Frost looked on choice and, himself claustrophobic, did not make one. Can we blame him? Two strange roads diverged in a deep wood on the edge of winter. What greater fear than the unknown?
Ah, you say, but then what to make of this:
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Here’s where we trip: “Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.” However we have read this, isn’t it possible that by keeping the “first for another day,” Frost simply means that it is a path he trods often, and will again? Keeping it another day would suggest Frost will return to what he knows, and not venture further. There are not two paths here; there are three. Overwhelmed by choice, he stays safely on the path that brought him to the choice of two more.
And what of doubting that he should ever come back? If he trods that path—”the first kept for another day”—safely and often, why wouldn’t he return to the two roads diverged? By choice, he will avoid or ignore them, and rationalizes it not as self-made choice (the deepest irony), but as the inevitable hatchings of nature and time. I hear him saying: “It is not my choice that kept me from those roads diverged, but the way of ways leading on to ways.” Yet another irony, given that the way he trods is the same, day after day.
On some level, this is not a bold poem about choice. It is a meek and fearful poem of no choice at all. That, perhaps, is more human than the more common rendering of choice as a given, and its consequences the only fodder for poetic wonder.