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Which and What is “The Road Not Taken”?

May 2, 2010

Herbert Read in 1958, Photo by Roloff Beny.

In 1934 Robert Frost‘s eldest daughter Lesley Frost Francis delivered a lecture on the so-called New Movement poetry of the mid-1910s (work done by such writers as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, H.D., and Frost himself while he was in England from 1912-1915). Apparently at her request, Frost wrote her a long letter sketching out his own history of the “movement” and summarizing the aesthetic doctrines of the poets involved. In the letter he refers to the poet and critic Herbert Read, author of Form in Modern Poetry (1932), to whom he attributes “the doctrine of Inner Form”: adherence exclusively to “the form the subject [of the poem] itself takes if left to itself without any considerations of outer form. Everything else,” Frost goes on to explain, “is to have two compulsions, an inner and an outer, a spiritual and a social, an individual and a racial. Everything but poetry according to the Pound-Eliot-Richards-Reed school of art.” Over against this position Frost asserts his own, arguing that everything, even a poem, has “not only formity but conformity.” “I want to be good,” he says, driving the point home, “but that is not enough the state says I have got to be good.” The latter remark succinctly frames Frost’s interest in the general question of motivation, not simply in Herbert Read and his “school.” And in what follows I consider his contribution to the theory of motive and personality in poetry. As I am concerned with it here, a theory of personality in poetry addresses the question of who or what chiefly motivates a work of literary art. Is the controlling discipline (or “compulsion”) in a poem the “inner voice” of the writer, his will to expression? Is it the impersonal agencies either of language, form, society or tradition? Or is it rather a mixture of personal and impersonal motives? If the latter, then what sort of mixture? In considering Frost’s answers to these questions we confront some of the most important matters addressed in his essays and letters on poetics. Thinking about his theories of personality in poetry also helps us place his work more clearly within the context of his modernist contemporaries.

Robert Frost, at about the time he was in England.

“I want to be good but that is not enough the state says I have got to be good”—an elegantly simple statement of a complex problem. With characteristic concision and informality Frost suggests how difficult it is to know where external “compulsion” ends and where “inner” desire begins. The idea is that, at least until the state withers away, we simply cannot speak of pure acts of “goodness.” There’s always an incalculable element of coercion, whether by force or by incentive, since we always act within a texture of constraints and goads ranging from convention to legal imperatives. Frost describes a dialectic of necessity and freedom. Everything has “two compulsions, an inner and an outer, a spiritual and a social, an individual and a racial.” Or:  “Every thing has not only formity but conformity.”

Kenneth Burke‘s remarks on a related problem of motivation are illuminating. He is discussing, in A Grammar of Motives, what he calls the “paradox of purity” or of “the absolute”:

Cover of the University of California Press paperback edition.

[T]he paradox may be implicit in any term for collective motivation, such as a concept of class, nation, the “general will,” and the like. Technically it becomes a “pure” motive when matched against some individual locus of motivation. And it may thus be the negation of an individual motive. Yet despite this position as dialectical antithesis of the individual motive, the collective motive may be treated as the source or principle from which the individual motive is familially derived in a “like begets like” manner.

The question is whether “collective,” external motives exist in antithesis to individual motives, or whether the former “parent” the latter. Of course, Frost deals with the paradox implicit in “collective motivation” more bluntly in saying that he wants to be good, but that is not enough—the state says he must be. Is his virtue enforced by a “collective” will working against his own “inner” form? Or does his inner desire to “be good” itself derive from his engagement in a collective social enterprise? Collective motives—what Frost would call motives of “conformity”—may be described genetically. They exist in harmony with individual motives as their originating principle. Or they may be described contextually. They work in antithesis to strictly personal motives—what Frost would call the motives of “formity.”

Later in the Grammar Burke makes a suggestion that helps bring out the broader implications of Frost’s remarks to his daughter. He asks whether or not, strictly speaking, “action” is compatible with “motivation”:

If we quizzically scrutinize the expression, “the motivating of an act,” we note that it implicitly contains a paradox. Grammatically, if a construction is active, it is not passive; and if it is passive, it is not active. But to consider an act in terms of its grounds is to consider it in terms of what it is not, namely, in terms of motives that, in acting upon the active, would make it a passive.

Jacques Derrida, suave French philosopher & literary critic.

Cover, Northwest University Press edition.

Cover, Northwest University Press edition.

Frost asks a similar question in his letter. Does the motivation to conform exercised on us by social forces actually rob individual actors of their agency? Is it possible, again strictly speaking, to perform a “good” action if virtue is also somehow enforced? Inner and outer motivation may negate rather than complement one another. In the “Afterward” to a second edition of Limited Inc (1988) Jacques Derrida makes much the same point, though in more high-flying diction: “A decision can only come into being in a space that exceeds the calculable program that would destroy all responsibility by transforming it into a programmable effect of determinate causes. There can be no moral or political responsibility without this trial and this passage by way of the undecidable.” Where Derrida writes “moral responsibility” I read “self-hood” or “agency” since that is really what we’re talking about. Agency and self-hood are what exceed “calculation” and prediction. Frost, Derrida and Burke address the same basic set of questions. What is the meaning of “agency”? Is it personal? Impersonal? Is it masterable? What are its conditions?

That true agency exists only beyond the limits of law seemed quite evident to Frost. Here, “law” can refer to previous dispositions of the self—a kind of gravitational, constraining inertia—as well as to forces imposed from without. Frost seems to be thinking of this when he offers in his notebooks what must strike some as an odd definition of “sincerity”: “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.” “Sincerity” is not an expression of the deep heart’s core. It consists instead in an experience of transition out of previous self-definitions, not in an affirmation or further elaboration of them. To Frost this held true for corporate agency and “sincerity” as well, as when he writes in an unpublished version of his essay on “The Future of Man” (1959):

The great challenge, the eternal challenge, is that of man’s bursting energy and originality to his own governance. His speed and his traffic police. We become an organized society only as we tell off some of our number to be law-givers and law-enforcers, a blend of general and lawyer, to hold fast the line and turn the rest of us loose for scientists, philosophers, and poets to make the break-through, the revolution, if we can for refreshment.

A page from John W. Hale's 1894 edition of "Areopagitica" for Oxford Clarendon Press.

This is to say, with Derrida, that true agency—”bursting energy,” “originality,” “refreshment”—exists only on the margins of definition and governance in a “passage by way of the undecidable.” Pure “formity” must be defined against even self-conformity. And “making the break-through” means rising, even as an “organized society,” to our “highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.” Or to return to Frost’s 1934 letter: there is nothing absolutely “personal” about good behavior if the state also compels you so to behave. A “cloistered virtue“—to borrow John Milton‘s phrase in Areopagitica—may be derivative or enforced, depending on how you look at it. But in neither case is it properly intrinsic to the agent until tried against the constraints and prompts of the larger world.

Complicating the problem is the fact that all actions imply further actions, no matter what, or how pure, their originating motivation may have been. All our actions carry within them the seeds of necessity, as Emerson recognizes in “Goethe“: “A certain partiality, a headiness, and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like,—but you do it at your peril. Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted, and who has not been the victim and slave of his actions.” Frost understood the point well, though he usually seems less troubled by it than Emerson. In the talk at Dartmouth College that served as the basis for his essay “The Constant Symbol,” Frost remarks:

I always test the other man. I suspect him of having gotten lost in his steadily deepening commitments. Everybody does this. We are all always testing each other’s sincerity. I do it when I read poetry. I do it when I watch the president of the United States as he gets deeper and deeper into commitments. I watch every marriage that way. In this unfolding of the kept or lost intentions within the deepening commitments is the root and basis of all good writing.

I would note two things here: the potentially antithetical relationship Frost establishes between “sincerity” and “commitments,” and the paradoxical idea that “intention” is a thing at once “unfolded” (or revealed) and “kept.” The paradox holds in suspension two different ideas: (1) that intentions are the grounds or cause of our actions, and (2) that intentions are somehow the products of our actions. Jonathan Culler usefully expresses the point in On Deconstruction (1982): “When questioned about the implications of an utterance I may quite routinely include in my intention implications that had never previously occurred to me. My intention is the sum of further explanations I might give when questioned on any point and is thus less an origin than a product, less a delimited context than an open set of discursive possibilities.” This is what “The Constant Symbol” is about: how the manifold commitments in which we engage in speaking, in writing a poem, or most generally in acting, produce an intention that we cannot with fidelity say we ever fully or originally possessed. We might describe our actions more accurately as the revelation than as the expression of purpose.

We can see how intention is revealed rather than expressed, Frost suggests, by considering the progress of a career or of a life, or simply by considering the progress of a poem, which is a symbol for each of these larger progressions. “Take the President in the White House,” he writes in “The Constant Symbol”:

A study of the succession of his intention might have to go clear back to when as a young politician, youthfully step careless, he made choice between the two parties of our system. He may have stood for a moment wishing he knew of a third party nearer the ideal; but only for a moment, since he was practical. And in fact he may have been so little impressed with the importance of his choice that he left his first commitment to be made for him by his friends and relatives. It was only a small commitment anyway, like a kiss. He can scarcely remember how much credit he deserved personally for the decision it took. Calculation is usually no part in the first step in any walk. And behold him now a statesman so multifariously closed in on with obligations and answerabilities that sometimes he loses his august temper. He might as well have got himself into a sestina royal.

There’s an element of satire here. This “youthfully step careless” politician probably serves purposes not his own, even if he isn’t aware of it. The mind of the president is not the same thing as the Presidential Mind, which in Frost’s account is more a social than an individual concern. The situation requires that we use the word “sincerity,” for example, a little loosely, since the agent in this particular economy of motives is larger than a single man. “Behold him now a statesman so multifariously closed in on with obligations and answerabilities that sometimes he loses his august temper.”

But Frost hardly wants to suggest that purely self-derived motivation becomes meaningless only when we describe the progress of “step-careless” politicians. His satire has a complicated irony, some of it directed at himself as a writer. After all, the president “might as well have got himself into a sestina royal.” Later in “The Constant Symbol” Frost raises similarly skeptical questions about Shakespeare’s integrity: “What’s the use in pretending he was a freer agent [in writing his sonnets] than he had any ambition to be?” Much of the irony of Frost’s portrait of “the President in the White House” and of the poet turns upon the word “temper,” which derives from the Latin word temperare: “to regulate” or “to govern.” Frost’s use of the word in this connection suggests that no pure regulation or integrity of purpose is ever really there to be lost. We must speak not of intention, but of a “succession” or evolution of intention. Frost indicates that we may in fact deserve very little “personal” credit for the “succession” that brought us to our present position of power. All our actions are intemperate.

From the first edition (Holt, 1916).

These considerations lead us down “The Road Not Taken,” a meditation that apparently concerns “step-carefulness” but really concerns “step-carelessness.” The ironies of this poem, collected first in Mountain Interval (1916), have been often enough remarked. Not least among them is the contrast of the title with the better-remembered phrase of the poem’s penultimate line: “the [road] less traveled by.” Which road, after all, is the road “not taken”? Is it the one the speaker takes, which, at least according to his last description of it, is “less traveled”—that is to say, not taken by others? Or does the title refer to the supposedly better-traveled road that the speaker himself chose not to take? Precisely who is not doing the taking? This initial ambiguity sets in play equivocations that extend throughout the poem. Of course, the broadest irony in the poem derives from the fact that the speaker merely asserts that the road he takes is “less traveled.” The second and third stanzas make clear that “the passing there” had worn these two paths “really about the same” and that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Strong mid-line caesuras in the poem’s first ten lines comically emphasize the “either-or” deliberations in which the speaker is engaged, and which have, apparently, no real consequence. Nothing issues from them. Only in the last stanza is any noticeable difference between the two roads established, and that difference is established simply by fiat. The speaker simply declares, in prospect no less, that the road he took was “less traveled,” against all the countervailing evidence in the foregoing lines. There is nothing to decide between them. There is no meaningful “choice” to make, or rather no more choice than is meaningfully apparent to the “step-careless” politician of Frost’s parable of decision in “The Constant Symbol.” As Culler would say, the speaker’s “intention,” here, “is the sum of further explanations [he] might give when questioned on any point and is thus less an origin than a product, less a delimited context than an open set of discursive possibilities.” It’s the “further explanations”—whether uttered with a “sigh” “somewhere ages and ages hence” or not—that “make all the difference.”

Mischievous though “The Road Not Taken” may be, there’s serious matter in it, as my reading of “The Constant Symbol” suggests. “Step-carelessness” has its consequences. Choices—even when they are undertaken so lightly as to seem unworthy of the name “choice”—are always more momentous, and very often more providential, than we suppose. There may be, one morning in the yellow wood of a young man’s life, no difference between two roads—say, the Democratic and the Republican “roads.” But “way leads on to way,” as Frost’s speaker says, and pretty soon you find yourself in the White House, embattled by all your “answerabilities” and commitments. This is the indifference that Frost wants us to see. “Youthful step-carelessness” really is a form of “step-carefulness.” But it is only by setting out, by working our way well into the wood, that we begin to understand the meaning of the choices we make. Only then can we properly understand them as “choices.” The speaker vacillates in the first three stanzas of “The Road Not Taken.” But his vacillations, viewed in deeper perspective, seem, and in fact really are, “decisive.” We are too much in the middle of things, Frost seems to be saying, ever to understand when we are truly “acting” and “deciding” and when we are merely reacting and temporizing. Our paths unfold themselves to us as we go. We realize our destination only when we arrive at it, though all along we were driven toward it by purposes we may rightly claim, in retrospect, as our own. Frost works from Emerson’s recognition in “Experience“:

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. . . If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we though ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.

Frost’s is an Emersonian philosophy in which indecisiveness and decision feel very much alike—a philosophy in which acting and being acted upon form indistinguishable aspects of a single experience. There is obviously a contradiction in “The Road Not Taken” between the speaker’s assertion of “difference” in the last stanza and his indifferent account of the roads in the first three stanzas. But it is a contradiction more profitably described—in light of Frost’s other investigations of questions about choice, decision and action—as a paradox. He lets us see, as I said above, that every action is in some degree intemperate, incalculable, “step-careless.” The speaker of “The Road Not Taken,” like the politician described in “The Constant Symbol,” is therefore a figure for us all. This complicates the irony of the poem, saving it from platitude on the one hand (the M. Scott Peck reading) and from whimsy on the other (the biographical reading of the poem  as a friendly tease written for his indecisive friend, the poet Edward Thomas). I disagree with Frank Lentricchia‘s suggestion in Modernist Quartet that “The Road Not Taken” shows how “our life-shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control.” The author of “The Trial By Existence” would never contend that we are fundamentally out of control—or at least not do so in earnest. That poem, from A Boy’s Will (1913), Frost’s first book, closes as follows:

From the first American edition (Holt, 1915).

All the mischief, all the mystery, all the interest lies in that “somehow.” In that intimation that “life has for us on the wrack / Nothing but what we somehow chose.” And we are always somehow choosing.

N.B.: For a discussion of “The Road Not Taken” at the Modern American Poetry web-site, click here. For a list of all other entries within The Era of Casual Fridays having to do with Frost, click here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jack roberts permalink
    September 1, 2010 1:15 PM

    Hey Mark, glad to see you’re are thriving in japan, kyoto no less. I keep up with your stuff at college hill and here. The frost piece is lovely. Thing that always get me about the poem is that people assume there s a fork in the road when he only says that two road diverge, the road diverged making the conceit more hard to work with should one be so inclined as I am not. But I ask where he is standing as he looks down one as far as he could. Is he between roads, on one looking down the other, etc? Nice mischeif there. Best, jack

  2. jack roberts permalink
    September 1, 2010 1:30 PM

    Oops, should be a not before phrase “the road diverged”

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