Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Road (I Wish that Robert Frost had) Not Taken

The syrupy tone of Robert Frost’s "The Road not Taken" epitomizes Western egocentrism, nostalgia, and sentimentality; that's why [we] love the poem so much. But it is a bad poem both thematically and artistically. Thematically, the poem is not just intellectually vacuous, the poem also proffers a purely subjective emotionalism that charms the modern ear. Artistically, the poem fails with regard to theme and imagery.

One of the most essential components of poetry is to complement theme with imagery. Master's of this art are Homer, Dante, Bunyan, Milton, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, et al. The aesthetic dance between theme and imagery should accomplish one of two things: imagery either complements or contrasts in order to magnify theme, such as Conrad's use of the heart-shaped African continent to illustrate his "heart of darkness" or Wilde's horrifically deteriorating portrait that contrasts Dorian Gray's youthful beauty. But Frost's imagery neither appropriately complements nor contrasts his theme; to the contrary, Frost's imagery actually detracts from and, therefore, diminishes his theme of rugged individualism.

Reading the poem with vocal emphasis on the term "I" results in something like christening the soul with warm molasses.

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.

Besides its obvious I-centered egoism, the poem is internally self-contradictory in terms of its theme and imagery. The title - "the road not taken" - implies that "the road not taken" is somehow inferior to the other road the poet does take, as if the road the poet takes is somehow a braver, more adventurous, and nobler path than "the road not taken." The poet also declares that the road he takes - "the road less traveled by" - has "made all the difference," suggesting that the road he takes is wonderfully different from "the road not taken" and, thus, somehow destines the poet for uniqueness, another egoistic element. But Frost misleads his reader at this point and loses his poetic sensibilities. His imagery hereafter fails to complement what his theme asserts: that the protagonist is some kind of rugged individualist who bravely takes "the road less traveled."

Frost's initial description of "the road less traveled" is that it has "the better claim" and "was grassy and wanted wear." This suggests that the poet is about to embark upon a somewhat mysterious, adventurous, unknown, and untrodden path that "wanted wear." But Frost's subsequent description of the two roads contradicts both his initial imagery and the reader's expectation of "difference," whether the egocentric difference of the brave protagonist or the topographical difference between the two roads. Rather than illustrating his theme of the "difference" in the path that "wanted wear," Frost actually fails to illustrate this "difference" and, instead, describes "the road less traveled by" as completely un-different, quite the same as "the road not taken" - it is "just as fair," "really about the same," and "both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black." Those visual images and explicit statements of practically identical roads blatantly contradict the poet’s implied distinction between the two roads whereby to heroize the path-taker's magnificent individuality. This contradictory imagery also falsifies the typical reader’s psycho-emotive response to the poet’s declaration that "I, I took the road less traveled by," thus evoking the misguided sentiment that, because the road is different (as it was not), then I am different as well (as I probably am not). That Frost's poem intentionally aims for such egoism, sentimentality, and nostalgia is subtly corroborated by his use of the emotionally bland term "sigh" in his concluding stanza,

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.

"I--I"— Oh, "sigh," . . . please . . . 

Although Frost intends to convey heroic individuality, he fails both philosophically and artistically; philosophically, he fails in that he has written an inferior “song of myself,” a spiritual and ethical antithesis of selflessness that should repel if not repulse any conscientious reader; artistically, the poem is third-rate, a rhetorical canvas upon which Frost sketches incongruent images and ragged metaphors that contradict  his emotionally egocentric theme.

But Frost has, nonetheless, succeeded beautifully on two points with regard to the modern reader: he definitely hits the target with regard to Western egoism, and he verifies our penchant to read with emotional subjectivity but without intellectual scrutiny or aesthetic discernment.

I think I'll go listen to Lil' Wayne or 50 Cent.

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