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“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” This month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the best known American poems. Many remember Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” for those last lines celebrating individualism and non-conformity. But most literary scholars say this was not Frost’s intended meaning. The poem, they argue, is about the self-delusion of a person looking back on their life romanticizing a decision as life altering, when it was not. We get to the bottom of the many interpretations of one of the most popular American poems.
The American Academy of Poets has this recording of Robert Frost reading one of his most famous poems.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," was first published in The Atlantic magazine in 1915, Frost was not well known. But within several decades, he became one of the nation's most famous poets. He was seen as the humble, farmer poet who spoke plainly of the American experience. But after his death, he was derided as a cruel, megalomaniac.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about this complicated poet and his most popular poem, David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times, and Robert Faggen at Claremont College, McKenna. And joining us from a studio in Vermont, Jay Parini of Middlebury College. I'm sure many of you would like to join us. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks to all of you for being with us.
MR. DAVID ORRThank you very much.
MR. ROBERT FAGGENYeah, thank you very much.
MR. JAY PARINIYeah, it's good to be here, Diane.
REHMDavid Orr, you've said that this poem is probably the most famous American poem. Give us some examples of just how widespread its fame has grown.
ORROh, it's enormously, enormously popular. I mean, it's used in commercials. It was used in Super Bowl XXXIV by Monster.com. It's kind of hard to imagine another poem being used as a Super Bowl commercial. In my book, I actually talk about a Ford car commercial in New Zealand in which the only text is "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. It's probably the most cited poem in graduation speeches, retirement ceremonies. It's everywhere.
ORRThere's actually a brewery in Connecticut that has it on the wall. My brother-in-law sent me a picture of a restaurant bathroom that had it on the wall. I'm not sure what road they were thinking people would take there, but it's enormously popular.
REHMLet's listen to a recording of Robert Frost himself reading the poem. We obtained the recording from the Academy of American Poets.
MR. ROBERT FROST"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.
MR. ROBERT FROSTI 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."
REHMRobert Frost reading his poem, "The Road Not Taken." To you, Jay Parini, most people interpret this poem by those famous last three lines. What do you make of them?
PARINIYou know, I still remember 50 years ago, my high school English teacher had actually hand-written those three lines and then she had framed them with glass over them and hung them in front of the classroom. And on the first day of class, she said, "Class, this is the great American poem and these are the most important three lines you'll ever read." She said, "March to a different drummer. Go your own way, do your own thing, that is the message of this great poem."
PARINIAnd, you know, for some years, I thought, you know, without looking at the poem to carefully, that, in fact, that was what this poem was about and I think most Americans and most people around the world, without looking into the matter too closely, assume that this is the meaning of the poem. Then, you get down to the business of reading the poem and you see how Frost complicates that ending and interrogates it and really throws it into some sort of vast obscurities that David Orr has done a brilliant job of trying to extricate us from this underbrush.
REHMIn his new book, titled "The Road Not Taken," but Robert Faggen of Clare McKenna College, what is the meaning you take from this poem and those last three lines?
FAGGENI think it's difficult to ascribe one meaning to the poem. I think that Frost was brilliant at holding opposite's intention. One of the things he wrote in his notebooks about a poem was by analogy, "your fist in your hand, a great force strongly held." "Poetry is neither the force nor the check, it is the tremor of the deadlock." And we can see that deadlock in almost every turn in this poem, including the title.
FAGGENThe title is very complicated, "The Road Not Taken." Does he mean the road not taken by other people or does he mean perhaps regret for the road that did not choose? Or yet, there's another possibility, that no road has actually been taken. In addition to that, the verb, taken, has a particular force in Frost in a later poem called "Choose Something Like A Star." Frost actually would change the title of that poem to, "Take Something Like A Star."
FAGGENAnd he would go back and forth. So we not that this is not the road not taken, rather than the road not chosen. Of course, colloquially, we talk about taking a road, but there's something about the nature of deliberation that is being dramatized in this poem that David points out so well in his book that is extraordinarily complicated. We have to look, I think, at the final lines of the poem in the context of the whole poem, that "two roads diverged in a wood and I," there's a dash there.
FAGGENDoes that dash suggest a break in thought, a break in time or a break in the very notion of a single forceful self? So that maybe this is something that he is proposing or wishing that he is going to be accomplishing in the future, but perhaps has not yet accomplished or will not accomplish.
REHMRobert Faggen, he's professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He's the author of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost" and co-editor of "The Letters of Robert Frost, volume 1." So to you, David Orr, question becomes what does Frost mean in your mind? And all this is so interpretive for each one of us, which is why poetry is so wonderful. But what does he mean by the lines "and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler"?
ORROh, you've picked out one of the most complex parts of the poem to start with. Well, also I know that Bob has some things to say about this as well. I think there are multiple possibilities as there are so often in this poem. I mean, he could be suggesting -- and I should credit Bob with this. It's one of the things he discusses in his book on Frost. He could be suggesting that experience alters the traveler, that anytime you make a decision, you're altered by the decision.
ORRSo even if the speaker returns to the same crossroads to take the second road, he would return as, in a sense, a different person. There's also something very odd in what he's expressing sorrow over here. It was "sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler"? It's a redundancy. It's very strange. Also, if you think about the regrets that we have over roads not taken, we're usually regretting the fact that we didn't get to do whatever is at the end of the road.
ORRWe're not regretting just the simple fact that we can't take two roads at once, which, again, seems like just something that's obvious in the physical nature of our bodies. So it's a very strange phrase and I'm not entirely sure what it means. I try to suggest three or four different possibilities in the book. But, you know, Bob, do you actually want to comment on this as well? 'Cause we talking about it just before the show.
FAGGENYes. I think, as you say, it seems just a casual redundancy "and be one traveler," but there's some suggestion that the self may indeed be altered with every decision and that this poem dramatizes what goes on thousands or incalculable number of times. That is, the attempt to make a decision based on certain kinds of information. It's also related to the line -- could be related to the lines "yet knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back."
FAGGENThere is a sense, I think, both of fear and possibly sadness there about not being able to return. And Frost often has, in his poetry, a sense of wanting to return, if not to home, to someplace that could be the source. And I think that there is a kind of fear here about losing that sense of source, whether it be himself or some other point in his past that is most important to him.
REHMI wonder if Frost were alive today, what do you think he would say, David?
ORROh, I couldn't even hazard a guess. Frost was very, very playful about his poems.
ORRAnd he was playful about this poem.
ORRAnd he was frustrated that he felt people misunderstood it, but he never precisely clarified it, either. I think he liked the mysteries.
REHMDavid Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times and author of the new book, "The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong." Short break, right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken." This is, in fact -- this month, in fact, is the 100th anniversary of when he wrote that poem, which has, for scholars, been a fascinating journey to look not only inside the words, the lines, the phrases of the poem itself, but also to reflect on Robert Frost, who he was, what he might have intended. But as David Orr has said, he was a playful man and wanted to play with all of us. Jay Parini is a poet, novelist and professor of English at Middlebury College. He's the author of "Robert Frost: A Life." Jay, I want to turn to you because I wonder to what extent you believe this poem is about free will and self determination?
PARINIThat's the great question, Diane, about the poem. Just for a second, I'll go back to what we were talking about earlier -- the moment that is the divide itself.
PARINIFrost is standing here wondering, should I go this way or should I go that way? And I wish I could divide myself and go both ways. And this is a poem about trying to somehow come to terms with the idea of selfhood. And Orr does a brilliant job, I think, in this book of talking about what is the self. And he notes that the self exists on some kind of a continuum, with a very solid, fixed self on the one side -- on the other side, a very un-solid, indecisive, a loose connection of perceptions or experiences that we -- that don't really form a continuity that we can maybe pretend is a self. So really my -- this is very much the modern dilemma: Who are we? How do I know what I am? Do I have a solid self?
PARINISo I think one of the reasons Frost's poem is so affecting is that he was an early poet to say, we are divided selves.
PARINIHow do we see who we are? Now Frost was a great reader of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was his father in literature. And Emerson once wrote that what's good in good literature is the idea that the voice somehow imitates man thinking -- man, there were no women in the 19th century.
PARINIAnd -- but yet, if you look at Frost's poem, it really bends on two inflective points. There's the one where he says, because I took the other "Because it was grassy and wanted wear" -- but then you get that crucial third line -- fourth line in the second stanza, "Though as for that the passing there" have warned him about the same. And then we get another inflection down further. "Oh, I kept the first" road "for another day!" Yet knowing how way leads on to way," -- it's that "yet" and the "though" earlier. These are points where Frost says, "Here's how it is." And then he says, "Mm, maybe not so much, maybe here's how it is."
PARINIAnd so, in a very short poem, we see him wriggling out of any formulation, giving us a sense of openness and indecisiveness and somehow insisting that we live in that indecisiveness.
REHMDavid Orr, it's time for you to read that poem again. I think I want to hear it again. And I think it would be good for our listeners to hear it again.
ORRYeah, I'd be happy to. And I think it'd be particularly useful, since a lot of what Jay said is just so accurate with regard to this poem. So let's hear it again.
ORR"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 bend in the undergrowth, Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the other 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."
REHMAnd I'm so glad you've read it now, because one of the things you say in your book is that you believe it's a biting commentary on America. How so?
ORRWell, I don't know that I would call it a biting commentary. It is an appropriately skeptical commentary in some sense. I mean, the issues that Frost is raising here, the issue of what constitutes the self, the question of choice, are issues that are very dear to Americans and that we have very particular ideas about. They're not completely distinctive ideas. They're shared with other cultures as well. But there is a sort of American character that Frost likes to play with, not just in this poem but in some of his other poems as well. And we have a kind of national myth that involves a powerfully autonomous self making choices in full consciousness of the choices and forging identities out of thin air in some cases.
ORRAnd Frost is both presenting that view and also questioning it -- appropriately questioning it. And, again, I would stay -- not biting exactly, just skeptical. I mean, as you know, the real shift in this poem happens in the final stanza when the speaker is not saying that he -- he's not talking about his current circumstances, he's talking about his future circumstances. "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."
ORRHe's saying, years from now, somewhere else, I'll be telling a story about making a choice. But of course, as I've just told you, this choice is between two completely interchangeable options. But down the line, I will say that they were not interchangeable and that I made a particularly brave choice.
REHMHow do you see those lines, Robert?
FAGGENI would agree very much with David and Jay about these lines. I think one can hear some regret or concern -- a great concern in the use of the word, "sigh."
FAGGEN"I shall be telling this with a sigh." Why with a sigh? One can sigh for many different reasons. Also I think the phrase, "ages and ages," may be very suggestive. It could be something slightly grandiose, but it could be something that means something even more to him.
REHMIt sounds sad.
FAGGENIt does sound sad. And Frost, of course, was perhaps as much as any poet, very attentive to tone and the tones of voice. So in reading this, it's -- I think one has to be very careful about the -- any -- imputing any kind of special bravado to the final lines.
REHMOn the other hand, here's a comment on our website, posted by Jared. He says, "Frost was 39 when he wrote this poem. Could he see the trials of life with the insight of an older person?" How would you respond, David?
ORRI think he certainly could. Frost had not had an easy life at all to that point. He had a very difficult existence. He was largely unknown as a literary figure, despite being one of the most gifted American poets ever to pick up a pen. He had lost a child at that point. And he had moved over and over and over again, from house to house to house. And he had not exactly failed at farming, but not exactly thrived at farming. He had led a very difficult existence. So I don't think he would have had any problem whatsoever understanding how one might feel when one is older and feels a little bit challenged.
FAGGENAnd he had lost two children.
ORROh, right. Exactly. Two. Sorry.
REHMAnd then didn't his wife die as well?
FAGGENThat was after...
ORRThat was later.
FAGGEN...after this, in the '30s. There were accumulated tragedies: The death of his wife, the suicide of his son Carol, the death of his daughter Marjorie.
REHMSo he had really experienced a fair amount of the hardships of life. Again...
PARINII'd say that Frost also...
REHM...the title of your book, "The Road Not Taken," David, or -- and the subtitle, "Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong," even the scene from the "Dead Poets Society," let's hear that.
MR. ROBIN WILLIAMSNow we all have a great need for acceptance. But you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, "That's bad." Robert Frost said, Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." And I want you to find your own walk right now, your own way of striving, pacing, any direction, anything you want -- whether it's proud, whether it's silly -- anything. Gentlemen, the courtyard is yours.
REHMAnd, of course, that was Robin Williams in the "Dead Poets Society," I must say, one of my very favorite movies. Jay Parini, does Robin Williams get that wrong?
PARINIOh, yeah, Robin Williams, brilliant as he is in this film, has it 100 percent backwards, like most teachers of Frost. I always tell my students that, in fact, that sigh that we were just talking about, I feel, be telling this with a sigh is not the saddest but the loudest sigh in all of American literature. Here's Robert Frost, at 39, unknown, unpublished, feeling unloved, like he will never have a real commanding self or a presence on the literary stage, knowing that one day he will say to his grandchildren as they're gathered around his knees, "Children, your grand pappy Robert Frost is a great man. He took the road less traveled. It made all the difference. It's why I am what I am."
PARINIBut he knows that he's lying through his teeth. That's a sigh of regret. He knows he's going to be putting on a mask, which will fit very poorly. It won't be there. It won't really be him.
REHMHe did, in fact, rise to fame in the '20s and '30s. People saw him as sort of the humble farmer, authentic type of writer. Who was he? What was he? David.
ORRWell, the thing is, it's very hard to say. I know it's an unsatisfying answer, but it's the only accurate one. Robert Frost is many things. You know, I think we can say that the farmer poet persona was largely a mask. On the other hand, he really had been a farmer and he really was a poet. So to some extent, he was a farmer poet. He was also an immensely intelligent and incredibly ambitious writer. And I think that is the aspect of Frost that some readers -- not all readers -- but some readers sort of struggle to take in. And this is, to an extent, intentional on Frost's part. Frost never minded being underestimated. He never minded it at all. He had immense confidence.
ORRAnd he was perfectly happy to write things that would be taken for less than they were. This poem is a great example of that.
REHMYou're shaking your head, Robert.
WILLIAMSFrost was -- I was shaking it in approbation. Frost did some rather daring things. One thing, I think, was to -- at Kennedy's inauguration, to say the poem which he had intended to say, "The Gift Outright," after he did not read the poem that he actually wrote for the inauguration. "The Gift Outright" is, I think, similarly misunderstood or understood wrong, in the way that "The Road Not Taken" is. And for Frost to say that poem that ends "To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become." That's a very bleak vision, I think, of the American future.
FAGGENAnd yet he said it on that occasion to a president who had campaigned on the slogan of The New Frontier. I think that this is someone who is capable of some rather devilish irony.
REHMDo you think that's what he was doing...
FAGGENYes, I do.
REHM...on that day?
FAGGENYes, I do.
REHMDo you all agree?
ORRI certainly thing that's an aspect of it. But I think at the same time, you know, if you go back and you watch the footage of Frost reading -- I'd be very interested to hear what Jay Parini has to say about this as well -- you go back and look at the footage, it's incredibly moving. I mean, watching it as a critic, I found it moving. Watching it as a poet, I found it moving. He's up there at the podium and fumbling with the papers. Ant it -- they're falling down and the...
REHMThe wind is blowing his hair.
ORR...sunlight is bright. Yeah. Exactly. And he -- it looks like he's going to fumble the reading away.
ORRAnd then the very last minute, he just puts everything down and recites "The Gift Outright." And it is -- I don't disagree at all with what Bob was saying. And yet, at the same time, it's incredibly inspiring.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jay Parini, would you agree?
PARINIVery much so, that I would point to the fact and historically that Frost -- that Kennedy and his friend Morris Udall, who was in his cabinet -- Udall had suggested that Frost read at the inauguration. Kennedy scratched his head and he said, "You know, if we let Frost read, that old character is going to steal the show. They'll hardly remember that I was running -- that I was nominated and won the presidency." And sure enough, Frost comes out and he does a big act.
PARINIMost people remember very little -- possibly Kennedy's great speech -- but also they remember that day of Robert Frost, the old man, fumbling for the page and not finding it and saying, "Oh, let me sort of see if I can remember this poem from -- I think I can pull it out of my memory somewhere." Well he's recited it, you know, 5,000 times in his life. It was not exactly difficult. You know, he was a great actor. And this was performance art at a high level. Frost was playing the role of old (word?) almost demented poet, and who could then summon the spirit from the winds and played for the gods.
REHMWell, I promise you, I did watch it and I do remember both President Kennedy's speech, his inaugural speech, as well as Robert Frost. It really was quite something. But I really want to understand a little more why people and you, the scholars, regard Frost as -- well, the word "megalomaniac" has been used. Tell me why. What do you think?
FAGGENI wouldn't use that word at all. That was something that came out of a biography that was mono maniacally focused on everything that Frost seemed to do, in his mind, wrong. That is the Thompson biography. But I think Frost probably had, at the very least, a very healthy ego. But monster and megalomaniac, I think, are unfortunate terms.
REHMRobert Faggen, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, author of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost," co-editor of "The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 1." Short break. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about Robert Frost and his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken." David Orr is poetry columnist for the New York Times. He's the author of a new book titled "The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong." Robert Faggen is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, the author of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost." Jay Parini is on the line with us. He's a poet, novelist and professor of English at Middlebury College and the author of "Robert Frost: A Life."
REHMWe've got lots of callers. I'll try to get to as many as I can. First to Daytona Beach, Florida. Glen, you're on the air. Please be brief.
GLENYes, Diane, I enjoy the show. It was the early '70s. I was a police officer in Austin, Texas. My wife works for the legislature. I used to go have lunch with her. I'd bring a pizza or something. She had an older lady that worked for her in the secretarial function, and we were talking poetry one day, and she said -- asked me was I coming the next day for lunch. I did. And she said, this is a secret, she said, I am Robert Frost's granddaughter. And she knew I liked the poem "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." She let me hold what she purported was an original manuscript of that poem.
GLENI don't remember the lady's name. I never fact-checked it or anything. But just it was a nice story in 1973.
REHMThanks for calling. What do you think of that story, David?
ORRI think it's great, good for him. Good for her.
REHMAll right, let's go to John in Olney, Maryland. You're on the air.
JOHNYes, I think he's related back to the ancient Greeks, Kafka, in "Metamorphosis," he wakes up as a cockroach. That's a road not taken by choice. And I think all of this goes straight back to what I -- I'm a physicist, quantum entanglement, the past is entangled with the future. And I think that's what Robert Frost is saying. Xeno says -- he tries to go from point A, I don't know how familiar your people are with Xeno's paradox, but you can't go from point A to point B because you'd have to go halfway first, then halfway again.
ORRSure, I think it's a really good point. We touched on this a little bit earlier, but one of the strangest things that happens in this poem is the shift into the future at the end. And again, it's a thing that's very easy to overlook. There are really two things that get overlooked in this poem. The first, as I think Jay mentioned earlier, is the middle lines about the interchangeability of the paths. The paths are basically the same.
ORRAnd the other thing that people tend to miss that, again in the last stanza, it's I shall be telling this, not I am telling this having taken the road. It's I'll be saying this in the future, projecting to some future self that may or not be reliable.
REHMHere is an email from Cedrick. He says Frost's generation would have been so much more Bible literate, and that ending has always sounded like Matthew Chapter 7, Verses 13 and 14. I'm not sure religious he was, but certainly the sentiment there is not take consensus, the trodden road, as indicative of proper decision. How religious was Frost?
FAGGENI think that Frost's attitudes and thoughts about religion are extraordinarily complicated, as just about everything else with Frost. I think that Frost's knowledge of the Bible and his knowledge of theology was profound, and -- were profound, and so I think we can separate what we knew of biblical literature from the question of whether or not he himself was religious. One might want to read not only all of his poetry but the later masques, "A Masque of Mercy" and "A Masque of Reason," to get a better sense of how Frost thought about a God.
FAGGENAnd sometimes I think that Frost believed profoundly in God and hated him. And other times I would put it as thinking that he didn't believe in God, and he didn't believe God existed and hated God for not existing, something rather paradoxical in that way.
ORRRight, and I just want to add to that that I agree with quite a lot of that, actually. You know, Frost has the greatest epitaph in all of poetry, which is I had a lover's quarrel with the world. You were asking about Robert Frost's character, and maybe nothing spells it out better than that.
REHMWhat does that mean?
ORRWell, he loved the world, but he quarreled with it.
REHMAnd just to carry this a little further, Jay Parini, let me read this quotation from Matthew. Enter by the narrow gate for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. Does that ring bells for you, Jay?
PARINIIt really does, and David Orr wisely points to Frost's great poem, "Directive," a late poem, in some ways Frost's truly greatest poem, where he talks about what is -- where he's essentially asking the question how do we find salvation. And at the end, it's almost like a moment of communion, drink and be whole again, beyond confusion. And Frost considered life very much a confusing place to be. And so poetry was a way of finding wholeness and unity and radiance in that life.
PARINII think David does a good job of pointing to Frost's allusions to the gospels there, Second Mark was wanting to keep the truth difficult of access. So Frost didn't want the wrong people to find, think they found salvation's work. He wanted to keep it for the elite few who could really understand him. He's a very agnostic poet in that sense. He called himself an Old Testament Christian, and I think that he's -- I consider him more of a agnostic Christian, that he believes there is a truth, that he has some access to that truth and that through his poetry, if we go in through the narrow gate, the broader public is going to be confused, they'll think that the road not taken opens at the end to a place where I took the road less traveled by.
PARINIBut Frost wanted us to re-read the poem, to dig deeper and to discover in ourselves this little, tiny place where we might open into a darker, maybe brighter place, where the truth lies.
ORRRight, and I agree with all of that, and I would just add that what I think is interesting about Frost is that in Frost, the gates are always open. They're sometimes hard to see, but they are always there.
REHMLet's go to Emma in Louisville, Kentucky. You're on the air.
EMMAGood morning. I think this poem is very melancholy, wondering, possibly regretful, not about successes but about living with our choices. And I -- you know, every time we go hiking, which is a lot, I think about this poem. And here's something interesting. One of the absolute most dangerous hikes I've ever been on was when we hiked on a trail that had been entirely covered in newly fallen leaves, and we got terribly, terribly lost.
EMMAAnd now when I hike, I think of that line, and I think I'm never going to walk on a path like that without extreme, extreme care. But that's -- that's how I feel about that. I think it is a very melancholy and wondering poem.
REHMWhat do you think, Robert?
FAGGENOne thing that I think is very interesting that David points out about choice and is also part of the melancholy, is that the choice is already determined by two roads, that these roads already exist. And so in some ways, the choice, the greatness of choice is already determined in advance by just the existence of these two roads. And Frost emphasized, as David points out, that he -- he insists on the word road rather than path, and there's something very definite about a road.
FAGGENThis goes back to a poem that he published in his first book, "A Boy's Will," called "The Trial By Existence," in which he's also contemplating the problem of choice but in terms of Plato's myth of Er and the repetitions that we go through in cycles of incarnation and that these things are, in a way, given to us.
REHMJay Parini, I'm starting to wonder whether Frost is really playing with us by suggesting that maybe there are no choices, that we simply act by our own volition rather than reasoning out and taking one road rather than another.
PARINIYou know, I often think of that great line from Yogi Berra. If you come to a fork in the road, take it. Frost is -- there's a little of the Yogi Berra in Frost. He loves that impishness. And there's something a little impulsive about taking one road and saying, well, I'm just going to take this one and leave the other one for another day. I think that Frost wants us to be lost out there. And it's a very American poem. I mean, I love the way David Orr, last chapter, talks about how American this idea is that we stand at a crossroads.
PARINIHe points to the fact that most countries have, as their emblem, a mountain, a great mountain somewhere or a building like the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower, some symbol. What do we have in America? We have this opening, this moment. People are -- possibility lies before them and also a zillion choices. I think the poem is very American in that way, and I think David has, you know, beautifully demonstrated that.
ORRWell, thank you. Frost -- go ahead, Bob.
FAGGENFrost liked to use the phrase passionate preference to describe some aspect of what we might call choice. And in that notion of passionate preference, there is the sense of choosing but also suggested that it is not so rational, that it is passionate.
REHMIt's impulsive, yeah.
FAGGENIt's impulsive. So that was included in a poem he titled "Accidentally On Purpose," which also conveys that kind of complexity, that kind of tension. And the poem ends with a kind of prayer. Grant me -- a prayer to whom is not clear, but grant me intention, purpose and design that's near enough for me to the divine. But for all that help of head and brain, how instinctively simple we remain, our greatest guide upwards the light, passionate preference, such as love at sight.
REHMJay Parini, did Robert Frost have friends?
PARINIFrost had probably more enemies than friends. Somehow he stirred the pot and got people. He loved to get people arguing and talking, complaining about him. He had a few close friends, but even there, there were troubles. You know, so, you know, there's a great line that, in fact, David quotes it in his book. He says, "no sweeter music to my ears," Frost wrote, "than the clash of arms over my dead body when I'm down." And so Frost would be so happy to hear us here.
ORROh, he'd be delighted.
PARINITalking about him, squabbling. The more we could -- if we could only disagree with each other a little bit more, Frost would be really happy. He wanted to hear critics screaming and saying, you know, he was this and that and the other thing. It's not for nothing that he had Lawrance Thompson, who was basically a rival in love, they were both in love with the same woman, write his authorized biography.
PARINIAnd so Thompson writes a three-volume, massive attack on Robert Frost, calling him a monster, and I think that led to all of -- I mean, Frost is, you know, as David Orr says, a disputed frontier, you know, constantly being contested. And Frost would've enjoyed all of this.
ORROh, he would've. There's been enough fighting over Frost over the years to I think we're entitled to this momentary stay right now.
REHMAnd you're listening to Diane Rehm Show. But, I mean, with the deaths in his family, I mean, and Jay just mentioned that Frost and Thompson were in love with the same woman, I mean, what was he like? Who was he as a friend or lover or person? What was he?
ORRWell, it's just very hard to say, again. Just the nature of Frost is the nature of performance. He's always shifting from one thing to another. That said, you could -- he was devoted to his wife, and from a very young age, and he had at least one very good friend, Edward Thomas, who was, at least so Frost claimed, actually the inspiration for "The Road Not Taken." And despite the best efforts of, as Jay Parini quite rightly notes, a pretty hostile early biographer, no one has yet been able to claim that Frost was not loyal to Edward Thomas.
ORRIn fact -- should I tell you the story of Edward Thomas?
ORRSure. So Frost, as we've mentioned, was not very successful in his early career in America, and at a certain point, 38 years old, he decided to move his entire family, which several children is a pretty large undertaking, to Great Britain to try to restart his literary career. So he moves to England, and astonishingly enough, this works. And he meets all of the right people, and he makes all the right connections. But in particular, he met an English poet, who was really more of a critic than Edward Thomas. And they became very, very close friends.
ORRAnd as Frost tells it, and he's a pretty unreliable narrator of these things, but as Frost tells it, he and Thomas would take walks in the woods because they were both very interested in nature, and Frost was a nearly professional botanist, as Bob Faggen and I were discussing earlier. And they would follow these paths, and Thomas would usually take the lead because he was the native host, so to speak.
ORRAnd according to Frost, after they'd gone 10 minutes down the path, Thomas would immediately start regretting whatever path they took, and he would say, oh, I wish we'd gone the other way, I could've shown you something different. And so Frost claims, at least, that he initially wrote this poem as sort of a joke at Thomas' expense, you know, you're always regretting the road not taken. And in fact he sent it to Thomas with no accompanying text in a letter, under the title "Two Roads," which actually makes our early discussion of the complexity of this poem's title even more interesting because Frost aggressively changed his first title to get this very strange title that the poem currently has.
ORRSo, you know, you would think, well, Edward Thomas, a wonderful reader and a very good friend of Frost, the dearest friend he ever had, or so he said, you would think he would certainly understand this poem, but in fact the two of them exchanged I think six letters before Thomas finally understood the poem the way Frost wanted him to.
REHMDavid Orr, he's poetry columnist for the New York Times, and his new book is titled "The Road Not Taken." Robert Faggen is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. Jay Parini is a poet, novelist and professor of English at Middlebury College. Thank you all so much for giving us so much to think about. Thank you.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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