Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Big Hominid: 'Frost's A$$ is Grass, and I'm Lawnmower Man!'

My friend Kevin Kim must have felt challenged by my recent, appreciative post on the poet Robert Frost, for he even more recently wrote that "Robert Frost makes no damn sense" in that poet's most famous poem, The Road Not Taken.

Kevin's central beef is that "Frost provides almost no evidence, in his poem, that the supposedly less-traveled path actually is less traveled," and Kevin adds that "Technically, one road diverged and became two." Let's quote the entire poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

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.

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.
That's the poem, and based on what Frost wrote, I took issue with Kevin two points: the meaning of "diverged" and the difference between the two paths, first dealing with "diverged":
I assume this review is mostly tongue in cheek, but you raise an interesting point about "diverged," forcing me to give it some thought.

Imagine yourself standing at the point where the road forks. From that point of perspective, you see two roads diverging, each from the other. I don't see the inevitable absurdity to Frost's description that you see.
Kevin replied:
I suppose that much depends on how to interpret the word "diverge." If it's taken to mean something like "branch off," then the implication is that two paths (phenomena, etc.) start off as one -- in which case it doesn't matter where one is standing, because the objective, perspective-independent fact is that one road is becoming two.

If, however, "diverge" is taken to mean something more like "veer apart" or simply "differ" (e.g., divergent opinions), then yes, two roads can appear to diverge, based on one's perspective, and there's no contradiction in Frost's poem.

But there's still much that is nonsensical about that work.
Since Kevin had conceded the possibility of my reading of "diverged," I turned to another point of putative nonsense, the 'indistinguishability' of the two roads:
Well, "about the same" is not the same as "the same," so I see no contradiction there, and the slight difference, "Because it was grassy and wanted wear," gives the reason why he "took the other" . . . , and the fact that on both roads were "leaves no step had trodden black" is a point about that particular day on that particular morning, not a longstanding characteristic of both paths over some longer period of time.
Kevin replied:
I'm not sure how that's relevant. Obviously, he can only make his decision based on what he sees at that moment, but what he sees, if we take him literally (and I don't see why we can't take him literally), is two paths equally untrammeled. Now if that's the case, then he's contradicting what he'd said earlier (rather ambiguously) about unequal trammeling. So I still contend the poem makes no logical sense.
I responded:
The less worn path is judged less worn based on the the fact of being slightly more grassy, a relatively long-term condition; the untrodden leaves are a fact of that specific morning: "both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

I think I'm reading rather literally at this point.
Kevin replied:
So we're agreed, then, that Frost isn't being a nonconformist at all, but is displaying watered-down conformism by taking a path that is merely less traveled as opposed to being untraveled. This isn't a Thoreauvian forsaking of people for the sake of embracing nature; this is a tourist's account of his travels to a slightly less-frequented site. There's nothing "off the beaten path" about this timid adventure. If those wooded paths ("roads"?) are "worn about the same," then "grassy" really means "slightly more grassy" and "wanted wear" means "wanted wear only to a slightly higher degree."
I said:
Yes, I agree with that interpretation.

At the meta-level, Frost is saying that some choices in life have to be made on little evidence of difference but that in the long run[, such choices] have nevertheless made all the difference.
I think that we reached agreement, more or less, and I suspect that Kevin's problem with the poem had more to do with illogical readings of the poem than with a close reading of the poem itself. But no debate about a poem is ever fully resolved, and I see that Wikipedia offers an interpretation closer to Kevin's, except that Frost was writing tongue in cheek. Incidentally, Wikipedia also notes that the poem motivated one English friend of Frost to make a tragic choice! I might also note that Thoreau, whom Kevin brought into the argument, was living beside a well-trod path during his time at Walden Pond. Just sayin' . . .

Any thoughts, anyone else?

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At 2:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

True, the path was well-trodden, but Thoreau was in the woods, away from society, for two years, two months, and two days. Guess he had a thing for twosies.

Thanks for the shout-out.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But Thoreau had many visitors.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:04 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

They didn't come all at once, I'm sure.

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Coming all at once is always difficult to coordinate . . . even if one gets off on the beaten path.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I am too simplistic, but to me Frost is saying he came to a fork in the road and while both had been used often, neither had been taken recently, and one less recently, and possibly less often, than the other. The basic point I get out of this famous poem is to not always be a follower of others. Branch out and explore on your own and you may see, or achieve, wonders no one else will.


At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chance encounters can change your life.
I was six month from ending my military time, and was offered a real opportunity if I re-enlisted:
A year as station keeper in Louisiana, then a year in an advanced school, and a guaranteed promotion.
Then I came home and met Linda Gay Fore. I decided to skip the military and marry her.
My whole life changed. The smoking, drinking, & other things ended, and I eventually entered the ministry.
My two friends who enlisted in the Navy continued their life style. Both died in their 40's from smoking. One from cancer of the lungs and brain, the other with a heart attack.


At 4:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jay, that was sort of my argument, but I agreed with Kevin that the choice was between two similar ways and that the paths were not especially untrod.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So, Uncle Cran, did you choose the path less traveled by?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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