All the difference

22 May


All the difference

By L. Stewart Marsden

My high school junior daughter, Livia, recently challenged me to reconsider Robert Frost’s iconic poem, The Road Not Taken.

“It’s tongue-in-cheek,” she proclaimed, based on her English teacher’s explanation.

For me, I had held the belief Frost was saying the path he took in life, which I had always believed was less-traveled, was the turning point of his life.

Nope. At least not according to my daughter and her teacher.

What the hell are they teaching in school these days?

So Livia pulled the poem up on her iPhone and slowly read it aloud, making her commentary after each of what I thought were pivotal lines.
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

So somebody is walking through the woods and the road — or path — splits into two directions.

Yep. Got that.

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;

So this is the point most believe this path is less traveled. But Frost never says that. Listen:

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

They are both equally worn, hence, equally traveled.

Wait a minute! I don’t remember it that way! The one the narrator takes is definitely the one less traveled!

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

There he says it again: both paths are equal!

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.

Ironic, right? He never comes back to walk down the other path. Like well-meant intentions. And that’s the only difference.

It says “all the difference.”

Right. As in, I took one path, that’s all.

No! It means how his life turned out was the result of choosing one path over the other!

Does it? Or does it mean he could have taken the other road and the last line would be the same?

My dad used to say, “Nobody likes a smart-ass!” Which is what I was thinking during this debate with Livia.

How a trusted interpretation of a trusted poem by a trusted poet could suddenly crumble! Like a sandcastle when a wave washes over it.

Joe Harmon was my English teacher in high school my junior year. He always wore a wry smile on his face, and was a Kerouac fan. He introduced me to the novel Midnight Cowboy, before it became a film hit. He had the class read Richard Cory, a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Then Harmon asked the class, “What happened to Richard Cory?” To a student, we replied he committed suicide by shooting himself.

Then his wry smile.

“And how do you come to that conclusion?”

The classroom erupted with the same explanation, “he went home and put a bullet through his head.”

“Does it say he died? Or that he shot himself?”

“No. It’s an inference!”

“I say there is not enough evidence in the poem that Richard Cory committed suicide.”

Just what were they teaching us at that school back then?

Nobody likes a smart-ass!


One Response to “All the difference”

  1. frederick anderson May 29, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    This reminds me of a quote from someone – I can’t remember who, excepting he was a poet – confronted by a critic’s learned assessment of his work. “Really?” Said the poet; “Is that what I meant?” The line I think too many pass over in the Frost poem is the ‘yellow wood’. The season was the fall, and each path was overlaid with leaves, so, though disguised, they were both equally travelled. The grassier way he elected to take seemed more pleasant. And though the end might have been much the same ‘way leads on to way’ (many diversions) the journey was the better for that greener grass. It’s not the destination, but the glory of the ride!

    Oh, and if I put a bullet through my head I’m dead. I might be guilty of an inference, but I wouldn’t be around to explain it.

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