The Road Not Taken and Motorcycling

It is one of the most recognized poems in the English language, and one of the most misused. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is not simply the paean to individuality as most of us interpret it to be. It is a complex examination of identity and how our choices define us.

The act of choosing changes the person making the choice. This point will be quietly reinforced two stanzas later, when the speaker says that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”—the doubt not only that he might return again to the same physical spot, but that he could return to the crossroads as the same person, the same “I,” who left it. This reading of the poem is subtly different from, and bolder than, the idea that existence is merely subject to the need to make decisions. If we can’t persist unchanged through any one choice, then every choice becomes a matter of existential significance—after all, we aren’t merely deciding to go left or right; we’re transforming our very selves. At the same time, however, if each choice changes the self, then at some point the “self” in question becomes nothing more than series of accumulated actions, many of them extremely minor. Frost’s peculiar addition—“and be one traveler”—consequently both elevates and reduces the idea of the chooser while at the same time both elevating and reducing the choice.

This raises the question: who decides the meaning of art? Do we examine how it fits within the larger body of both the creator’s body of life and work? Do we examine it as it stands alone, without reference to the larger culture within which it exists? Or does the popular meaning ultimately take precedence? Are these meanings exclusive of one another? When Frost wrote the poem, he seemed to be toying with his friend Edward Thomas with whom he enjoyed spending time with.

According to Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson, Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside—an impulse that Frost equated with the romantic predisposition for “crying over what might have been.” Frost, Thompson writes, believed that his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and would protest, ‘Stop teasing me.’”

Thomas and early critics didn’t recognize the depth of the existentialist thought in the seemingly simple verses and over time the poem has entered the public consciousness simplified with emphasis on the three last lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Modern critics agree the complex meaning is the best way to interpret Frost’s ideas, but I feel that is as limiting as it ignores the views of the rest of us. Art touches us all differently, and those personal emotions are why we are touched by a particular piece. We all want to feel our individualism; to feel separate from those we see as the herd moving anonymously about us. A hundred years after it was first published, this short poem has become the anthem for those feelings we need as we struggle through our lives.

Sept 28 2015All of the above rambling and reading was spurred by a video where the simplified version is exemplified by a motorcyclist and in the choices made in both vehicle and roads.

The bike in the video is a modified version of my own (Triumph T100) and the roads would be my choices as well. It’s getting awfully close to riding season, I’m getting itchy, and the less traveled roads beckon.

MOTORCYCLE MANTRA from Override Films on Vimeo.

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost – 1915

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.

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