Friday, March 9, 2012

Unconditional love: a gif

Should I have taken the Road Not Taken?

The Road Not Taken

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.

Quirky little thing, this poem. It's probably Robert Frost's most famous, largely because of the title of an M. Scott Peck self-help tome called The Road Less Travelled. In fact, I have seen people vehemently argue that that's the real title of this poem. On being corrected, selfsame people seem to want to have it legally changed, as if the original Frost title makes no sense.

It makes no sense.

How did all this get started? It's a chain, as usual. I was indulging my obsession with all things Oz, particularly the Tin Man, when a line from a ridiculous old song came to me. I thought it went, "I couldn't say anything to the Tin Man/That he didn't already know." Looking it up, as usual, I had remembered it wrong. The line was "Oz never gave nothin' to the Tin Man/That he didn't already have." The song was by a '70s group called America, known for their impenetrable easy listening songs that often seemed to cover a range of three notes.
While looking up Tin Man, I noticed another song by the same group called Horse with No Name. Oh yes, I remember that one: talk about monotony! But then that one stirred the memory of a truly passionate and tender song, Wildfire. And thus a post was born.

Way leads on to way.
If you take another look at the Frost poem, it isn't at all the way we remember it. The conventional synopsis is, "A guy is standing there in the woods and the path forks into two. One of the paths is smooth and straight and well-tended, whereas the other path is grown over with weeds, rocky and twisted. In a great act of heroism, he decides to take the road 'less travelled by'".
Then comes the capper: "And that has made all the difference."

I probably did not recognize until this very second that Frost's best-known poem is saturated with irony. That momentous existential fork in the road isn't at all what we assumed:

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

About the same? He's saying here that the two paths really aren't that much different. It's almost a toss-up which one he'll take. Eeny-meeny, and all that. So his decision to go with. . . OK, that one is really not so momentous.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

He's saying, OK, I'll take that other path next time I'm back here, but. . . I don't really plan to be back here. Ever.

It's that line "yet knowing how way leads on to way" that grabs however: don't we all realize that, at a certain point in life (maybe age 50)? My process in going from a rusty old tin man to a stunning song/poem about a wild pony happened in steps or stages. Way led on to way.

But this is a pretty trivial example.

College leads on to career. Date leads on to marriage. One-night stand leads to accidental conception and a new human being that nobody wants. Body-smoothers lead on to a billion-dollar empire (sorry, I couldn't resist slipping that in). It's as if every decision we make, whether large or small, can divert us from the path, or even cause us to abandon it altogether.

Or is it this way? This fellow is bumbling along in the woods, sees two paths that are practically identical, says to himself "OK, that one," then waxes lyrical about how this momentous choice changed his entire life.

So what's he saying? I wonder if it isn't some kind of satire on the Scott Peck idea of taking the heroic path and giving up the conventional. Taking the ultimate risk.

Ultimate risk? He already told us that both paths were relatively virgin. Both paths were not particularly worn down, yet not treacherous either. So when Frost concludes "that has made all the difference," is he having us on? Is it a sort of play on the heroic choice: "Look what risks I took in life! I went left instead of right!"

Or maybe he's serious. Left or right can be hazardous; we simply don't know. My own personal philosophy is that anything can happen to anyone at any time. If Frost's outlook had any connection to this sort of belief, then he's saying something that surpasses irony.

The title, The Road Not Taken, always puzzles and even offends people, which is why they seem to think he got it wrong. It might refer to the conventional traveler who rejects the "risky" road, but it could also mean the safe road he rejected. But why use that as the title, when it really isn't about that at all?

But maybe it is. If you actually read the thing, which most people who quote it don't, it becomes clear that it's pretty much all the same to him. The paths are almost indistinguishable. Infuriating, these poets, all that damned ambiguity.

The rest of us mortals have to try to figure all this stuff out. Could it be something as simple as this? Each path is going to have its own hardships, or else be boring and disappointing. Taking one over the other may make a huge difference, or barely any difference at all. If it's a path you've never been on before, you just don't know.

Maybe the important thing is to put one foot in front of the other, no matter how leaden or uncertain.  Foot, foot, foot.  Get going. Now. Move.

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