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In which Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" sends John down the wrong edge of the river, which then leads to a consideration of the poem, Frost's inspiration Edward Thomas, making choices, and how/whether literature can actually matter.


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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. So earlier this morning, I was kayaking on the White River and I came to an island that only exists when the water is low and so I had to choose which stream to follow down and I thought, as I always do in these situations, of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken.

You know, the one that ends in, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." So I followed the road that seemed the less obvious choice. It turns out that it was the less obvious for a reason. 

So Hank, The Road Not Taken is an interesting poem because 1) it's kind of responsible for the death of the person it was written for and 2) what most people conclude from the poem is the exact opposite of what Robert Frost intended to conclude. And also, 3) this dissonance points at something terrible about poetry I think Hank. 

But let's start with 1 - that dead guy. So Robert Frost was inspired to write this poem by the many walks he took with his friend, the English poet, Edward Thomas. Thomas was a very obsessive and indecisive person, and every time they'd come to a fork in the road, he wouldn't know which one to take.

You know, like how if you're in the English countryside and if you choose the wrong path, you might get eaten by a lion. But you can't know that until after you've made the choice. I assume that there are lions in England, at least dandy lions.

And in Frost's mind, the poem was, like, gently mocking people who obsess over the importance of tiny, little decisions, right? But as often happens with people who are mocked too gently, Edward Thomas didn't get the joke and took the poem very, very seriously. And so even though Edward Thomas was too old to be expected to enlist, he went ahead and took the road less traveled, joining the British army to fight in World War I, where upon he was promptly shot through the chest and killed. 

Since then Hank, pretty much everyone, including me, has adopted Edward Thomas' interpretation of the poem despite the fact that it, you know, it killed him. I think there's just something alluring about the idea that choosing the road less traveled is always a good idea. It would be very helpful if there was some overarching guideline, like "follow the path that others don't." Also, following the road less taken has the added advantage of making everyone feel like a non-conformist, which is nice. 

But of course, there are a bunch of problems. For one thing, if everyone followed the road less traveled, it quickly becomes the road more traveled. Furthermore, there are many times when the road more traveled is more traveled for a reason, because for instance, the road less traveled leads to a kayak unfriendly marsh. Or because it turns out that there's something kind of nice about having a spouse and two kids and a mini-van.

Anyways Hank, I've been thinking about this a lot because over at our podcast, Dear Hank and John, we've been getting a lot of questions from listeners who are making huge life decisions, you know, should I go into the military? Which college should I attend? Should I attend college at all?

As humans, we constantly have to make all of these big, big decisions, with very limited information. Like Hank, we're both incredibly blessed to have great marriages and great spouses, but I had no idea what I was agreeing to on my wedding day. I thought I was saying, "I want to be in a romantic relationship with you for the rest of my life." I did not realize that I was also saying, like, "I want to be co-CEOs of a company that raises children and mows lawns and stuff."

Anyways Hank, the other thing about Dear Hank and John is that I insist on beginning each episode with a short poem. And so in the last few weeks, we've had a bunch of discussions about poetry - whether poetry matters, what poetry does, etc. And I think, Hank, we have at The Road Not Taken one answer about what poetry can do. Because poetry is so often musical and rhythmic, it has a way of sticking in our heads, like I've memorized it almost by accident. 

Frost thought the poem was exploring how people experience choice-making rather than offering advice, but precisely because it sounds good Hank, it seems like good advice. And even though I know that it isn't good advice, at least not consistently, I suspect that the next time I am facing a fork in the road or a fork in the river, those iambic feet will wander back into my mind. And I will once again be biased, however minutely, toward the road less traveled. 

I guess that's one example of how I think poetry can really matter in the real lives of real people, Hank, and why I think that poets and readers alike need to be very careful with language. After all, Hank, we don't want to end up like Edward Thomas, but we also don't want to end up like the poet, who at least in a roundabout way, killed him. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.