The Road Not Taken Wasn’t Meant To Be Serious

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is probably America’s best-loved poem. It is a lyrical delight and I long ago committed it to memory. What is less well-known is the origin of the poem:

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of “The Road Not Taken.”[1] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. However, Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended; in particular, Thomas took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas’ decision to enlist in World War I.[1] Thomas was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras.[2]

The tragedy of this misunderstanding is poignant. Thomas was himself a wonderful writer. As evidence, here are the final lines from his short story “The Stile.”

I knew that I was more than the something which had been looking out all that day upon the visible earth and thinking and speaking and tasting friendship. Somewhere — close at hand in that rosy thicket or far off beyond the ribs of sunset — I was gathered up with an immortal company, where I and poet and lover and flower and cloud and star were equals, as all the little leaves were equal ruffling before the gusts, or sleeping and carved out of the silentness. And in that company I learned that I am something which no fortune can touch, whether I be soon to die or long years away. Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity. The confidence and ease had become a deep joy; I knew that I could not do without the Infinite, nor the Infinite without me.

Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras, Easter 1917, surviving just over two months in France. He was survived by his wife and three young children.

War is, for the most part, futile.

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.

(This post first appeared on November 11, 2014,  the anniversary of Armistice Day.)

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5 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken Wasn’t Meant To Be Serious

  1. That war, WWI, a war to end all wars, wiped out an entire generation of fine young men and left many widows and orphans. Why? It did give us the Poppies that grow in Flander’s Field and that poignant closing in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (a favorite anti-war movie of mine). But in the end was merely a prelude to WWII. And the cycle continues…;-(

  2. There must have been tremendous societal pressure on young British men urging them to join the War, everyone was going and he had to go too or lose face before the Nation forever! Did Robert Frost join ‘the Boys’ in France?
    I’ve met many people who, regretting past decisions, have said; If only I’d done this or that, gone this way or that way, my life would be better now but no one knows where the other road leads to,, and eventually all roads lead to our personal ‘Battle of Arras’ whether we meet it in War or lying on a bed in the palliative care ward it doesn’t really matter.

    Reply to Kevin,

    the cycle does continue because Human behavior is repetitive and lessons learned in one generation are lost in the next, it seems that we, like warring Ants, are driven by instinctual urges expressed by the ‘Hive’ mind that are more powerful than our individual intellects, and so, we ‘collectively’ cannot help doing what we do!
    Enjoy your day under the Sun, No individual lives forever and the Species won’t either!

    Thank you Dr. Messerly I so much enjoy the things you select for us to ponder.

  3. Wow! I never researched this. As a sailor and vagabond, I often cite this poetry. To “take the road less traveled “ has offered me solace and a brave spirit. It is so peculiar that someone who offered such a thought as whimsical could be so inspiring to another. I am grateful. Interpretation is everything and fulfilling to one’s sense of self. And as for me, I will take the road less traveled by….it has made all the difference. Thanks Doc; you gave me the map.

    Cheers,
    J

  4. Jason – always so nice to hear from you. And thanks for sharing your thought and as always for the compliments. Not sure I deserve them but I’ll take them anyway:)

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