I recall from a walk in Wensleydale a year or two ago, an unexpected fork in the path that my friend Patrick and I were taking down a hill called Addlebrough. There seemed to be two ways back to our starting point. For some reason the phrase ‘the path not taken’ came into my mind, and I briefly pondered that I might never find out what would have been different if we had taken the other path to the one that we decided to take. Patrick said that the phrase was ‘the road not taken’ and it was the title of well-known poem.
The Road Not Taken is a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in the preface to his collection of poems Mountain Interval which was published in 1916 when Europe was engulfed in the Great War.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, 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 travelled by,
And that has made all the difference
Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, and in 1913 he became a close friend of the then writer and literary critic Edward Thomas, after Thomas had reviewed one of the older poet’s collections. They took many walks together in the fields and woods around Frost’s cottage in the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. In 1915, Frost returned to New Hampshire and he sent Thomas an advance copy of The Road Not Taken.
The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their walks. Thomas would often choose one fork in the road because he was convinced it would lead them to something, perhaps a patch of rare wild flowers or a particular bird’s nest. When the road failed to yield the hoped-for rarities, Thomas would rue his choice, convinced the other road would have doubtless led to something better.
Frost wrote to Thomas ‘no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Unfortunately Thomas took the poem more seriously (as had college audiences to whom Frost had read his poem), and more personally than Frost had intended.
So close was the friendship that had developed between them when Frost was in England, Thomas and Frost had planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision. He also suffered from chronic depression. He found it difficult to choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France, even though he despised the jingoism and the hatred of Germans that the press was stoking.
But Thomas was also haunted by the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced six months earlier in a stand-off with a gamekeeper that he and Frost had encountered on one of their walks. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. The Road Not Taken did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. ‘Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’