The Killer Poem

Not long ago, I amazed a group of people by reciting from memory the poem “The Road Not Taken”, by Robert Frost.

The recitation was impressive because it was spontaneous. After one person tried to reference a line from the poem, I was able to finish the line and continue to the end of the piece. And while this sudden, unrehearsed incantation seemed miraculous to everyone present, there was a rational explanation for how I was able to accomplish it.

Extracurriculum ex Machina

Anyone who’s ever been part of a chorale group in high school knows that it is nothing like how Glee made it look.

High school chorales frankly don’t have the budget to cover all the latest pop songs. They also aren’t life-changing explorations of identity that shatter all your preconceptions and lead you down a radical new path you never could have conceived of when you took that first chance and joined the glee club.

But back to the music selection: student chorales sing arrangements made specifically for chorus, and the more the work fit into the public domain, the more likely it was to be performed.

Now, not all of Robert Frost’s poems are in the public domain, but “The Road Not Taken” was originally published in 1916, some years before the public domain cutoff date of 1923. As such, I can reproduce the entire piece here, consequence-free.

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.

In high school, I sang a rendition of this poem, with endless rehearsals permanently searing it into my memory. And that rendition was syrupy saccharine, with a grand swelling climax and an almost tremulous melody, as if the song was meant to be a veneration of some ancient and holy shin bone trapped in a reliquary.

Which would make sense to most people, since the poem is renowned as a ballad to the noble iconoclast, the sacred unorthodox, the holy heretic who throws down convention in the name of individuality. Ironically, this interpretation has itself become convention, orthodox, and iconic.

And it is all a bunch of baloney.

Robert Frost is Laughing at You

After I left high school, I learned the truth about “The Road Not Taken”.

Turns out, the poem is satirical—its true purpose is to mock and deride people who are indecisive. Robert Frost wrote it to call out these people for their lack of commitment.

And the poet makes no attempt to conceal it. Look again at the text. The narrator agonizes, stanza after stanza, about which road he thinks he should take, even though—by his own admission—the two are nearly identical.

At last, he comes to a decision, but is still so uncommitted to it, that he has to tell himself that he’ll be sighing and swooning over the other road for “ages and ages” after the experience has lost all meaning.

And here’s the clincher: the name of the poem is “The Road Not Taken”, meaning that the poem is dedicated not to the second road that was chosen by the narrator, but to the first, well traveled, road. The protagonist regrets not taking the more popular path.

This poem is a slap to the face of all those people who simply cannot make up their minds. It is meant to be a satirical—and maybe even cruel—jab at their inability to act.

But if that’s all it was, then it could be forgiven. Mockery has always been a celebrated feature of the arts. Satirical works do the important job of disillusionment, and allow anyone to be made a fool of.

But they don’t often kill.

Taking It Too Far

Though the poem’s true meaning is not immediately obvious to everyone, some readers were quick to catch on to the poet’s intent, and even reacted to it in disastrous ways.

Robert Frost claimed that he based the narrator of the poem on his friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas, who upon reading the poem decided that, yes, he did have a problem making up his mind, and no, he wasn’t going to let himself be dominated by indecision anymore.

So he volunteered for the army…and was promptly killed in World War I.

It didn’t have to happen. Edward was too old to get drafted, but the insinuations in “The Road Not Taken” drove him to make an impetuous choice for once in his life. His wife was told he suffered a bloodless death. That was a lie. He was shot through the chest.

It goes to show that if you taunt a cartoon chihuahua long enough, he will whiz on the electric fence.

What have We Learned?

Frankly, I’m half convinced to give up all poetry forever (maybe Plato was on to something when he called for it to be outlawed).

Or maybe the real lesson is not to make drastic life decisions because we have been shamed by a piece of media. At some point, we have to learn to stop letting others define us and take some personal responsibility.

But, at least in one instance, it is clearly better to skip the poem.

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