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What we’ve gotten wrong about this Robert Frost classic

August 18, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
It’s one of the most famous poems in American history. But David Orr, poetry columnist for The New York Times, says “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is widely misinterpreted. Jeffrey Brown interviews Orr about why he thinks Americans have got the poem all wrong, which is the subject of his new book of the same name.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now another addition to our NewsHour Bookshelf.

We look at a new take on a long-admired American poem.

Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood” — the first lines of one of the best-known poems by one of the nation’s best-loved poets, Robert Frost.

It’s called “The Road Not Taken.” And that’s the title of a new book that calls it ‘the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong.’

Author David Orr is poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and joins us now.

Welcome to you.

As you say, this is one of those rare poems that gets into mainstream culture, even commercials. Why? What has done that?

DAVID ORR, Author, “The Road Not Taken”: You know, I began the book by talking about a commercial in New Zealand, and it’s a commercial for Ford cars.

And the narration of the commercial is nothing but someone reading “The Road Not Taken.” They don’t attribute it to Frost. They don’t even tell you what it is. They just read the poem. The fact that you could recite a poem written by an American in New Zealand today, a 100-year-old poem, is pretty amazing, and that they’re expected to recognize it, know what it is, have associations with it. I mean, it’s an incredibly popular piece of writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s from the famous lines in the last stanza, right?

“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

So, it’s read as a kind of paeon to individualism.

DAVID ORR: Absolutely, absolutely.

And that’s why you see it in so many graduation speeches. That’s why you see it in commercials. There’s no company in the world that would put the poem up as part of their commercial if they knew what the poem is more likely to mean.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is what?

DAVID ORR: Well, if you look at the end of the poem, the speaker is claiming that he’s going to be saying something about the future.

He’s saying, I shall be saying this with a sigh some ages and ages hence. But it’s easy to forget what happens in the middle of the poem. In the middle of the poem, it becomes very clear that the two roads that the speaker is confronting are actually the same, or at least interchangeable.

And, in fact, we should probably take a look at those lines, just so people can understand what I’m talking about.

In the middle of the poem, Frost writes: “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.”

JEFFREY BROWN: In that sense, it doesn’t matter which one you take.

DAVID ORR: It doesn’t matter which one you take.

And, in fact, what Frost is suggesting is that when the speaker later claims that the road he took was less traveled and that it made all the difference, the speaker will just be making up a story after the fact to justify a choice that maybe wasn’t even really a choice in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frost himself wrote it for a friend?

DAVID ORR: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Almost as kind of a jest or joke?

DAVID ORR: That’s what he says.


DAVID ORR: He claims that he wrote it because he used to go on walks with the English poet Edward Thomas, because Frost spent a brief time in England. It was actually the beginning of his career as a poet.

And what he would like to say at readings afterward is that he and Thomas would go on these walks, and then Thomas, who has a somewhat more romantic sensibility than Frost, Thomas would always regret whatever path they had taken.

And then afterward, he would say, well, we really should have gone to the right. I could have shown you something over there. We should have gone to the left. I could show you something over there.

And Frost was very amused by this. And so he wrote the poem as a kind of joke at his friend’s expense.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also writing in somewhat — you have to — inevitably writing about Frost himself, right, who is famously subject to the same kind of duality, the way he’s seen as the avuncular, the farmer, the wise man, but as you write and as biographers have looked — have shown, a sort of constructed self.

DAVID ORR: That’s right. That’s right.

There’s a duality to Frost. It’s very much like the duality in this poem. And, in fact, what you see is a popular reverence for Frost that is based in this image of him as a kind of farmer poet, you know, tilling the soil of New England and coming up with all of these immortal poems.

And then there’s a sort of countervailing image of Frost among the academic readership for poetry, which is, you know, a very, very dark and withholding and manipulative sort of poet.

And what I try suggest in the book is that there is an element of truth to both of these image, just as there is sort of an element of truth to both of the common interpretations of “The Road Not Taken.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, your larger story here is that the reading and the misreading both tell us something about ourselves, particularly as Americans, and our ideas about individuality and community and so on.

DAVID ORR: Right. Right.

That’s right, because if you think about the sort of — the setting of the poem, it is an individual making a choice between two options, which is a very, very distilled version of the idea of choosing. I mean, often, we’re choosing among dozens of options or making choices in groups.

This is sort of the most focused version of choice that you could come up with. And, you know, in America, as a lot of psychologists and social psychologists have been demonstrating for some time now, we favor a kind of highly pronounced individualism that is maybe not quite so characteristic of some other countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “The Road Not Taken.”

David Orr, thank you so much.

DAVID ORR: Thanks a lot.