Unraveling the mystery of a famous poem.
New York Times Book Review poetry columnist Orr (Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, 2011) brings his finely honed skills as a literary critic to a meticulous investigation of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which Orr believes has been consistently misread. The poem, he argues, is not “a salute to can-do individualism” or an exhortation to choose an uncommon path in life. Orr presents a fresh, perceptive reading of the verse; places it in the context of Frost’s life, other works, and public persona; and considers the meaning of choice in American culture. Anyone writing about Frost confronts an early biographer’s portrayal of him as a monster: unfeeling, arrogant, and cruel. “Frost is always being rescued, always being reclaimed,” Orr notes. “He’s like a disputed frontier, constantly contested, and this book is yet another stone thrown in that conflict.” Orr sees Frost as neither monster nor angel, nor the modest, “witty, rural sage” that became his public image. “The Road” was inspired by Frost’s dear friend Edward Thomas, who tried Frost’s patience with his “romantic sensibility,” indecisiveness, and “self-dramatizing regret.” Frost meant the poem as a joke, but Thomas—and future generations of readers—failed to understand the humor. Instead, many readers took the poem as underscoring Americans’ “belief in human perfectibility, a concept that assumes the humans in question can make choices that will lead to improvement.” As the poem seems to imply, taking one road rather than another can make “all the difference.” Orr, though, concludes that the poem is a “critique” of the choosing self. “What matters most, the poem suggests, is the dilemma of the crossroads,” a troubling, unsettling intersection; a space, Orr suggests, “for performance and metaphor.”
An illuminating voyage into the heart of Frost’s poem and the American spirit.