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The Road Not Taken

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

Robert Lee Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963), the American poet, was born in San Francisco. His poems were often set in rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He was much honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

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.’

When Thomas was killed during the Battle of Arras, his widow, Helen, was told that he had died as a result of a shell blast stopping his heart, and that his body was uninjured. This was clearly to spare her feelings as a 1935 letter from his commanding officer to Thomas’s biographer John Moore, which was only discovered in 2015, stated that he was ‘shot clean through the chest’.

Thomas was passed fit by the doctor in July 1915 and he enlisted as a private in the Artists Rifles at the age of 37 – far too old to have had to fight. In November 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. Just two months after arriving in France, Edward Thomas was killed in action on Easter Monday 1917 at Ronville on the first day of the Battle of Arras.

Besides being one of the best known of Frost’s poems, The Road Not Taken is said to be one of the most misunderstood. Whilst the poem at first insists that the roads are ‘really about the same’, the final stanza has been hailed as a call to venture off the beaten path and blaze a new trail, and as evidence of the benefit of free thinking.

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, the iconoclastic teacher Mr Keating, played by Robin Williams, takes his students into a courtyard, instructs them to stroll around, and then observes how their individual gaits quickly subside into conformity. He passionately tells them “Robert Frost said ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference‘ “.

But Frost later said in 1961 that The Road Not Taken is ‘a tricky poem, very tricky’ (though one could ask if the poem has been made intentionally tricky?). Part of its artifice is that it enacts what it has previously claimed is impossible: the travelling of two roads at once.. The last stanza is not about individual choice but about trying to resolve our bewilderment and frustration that we can’t travel both roads. Frost attributes this to our tendency to attach more importance to things than they may deserve and to find meaning in such inconsequential decisions. The Road Not Taken is about the choice the speaker did not make, and which still haunts him/her.

Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) was a British poet, essayist & novelist. He was born in Lambeth, London to a mostly Welsh family. Although he is commonly considered a war poet, Thomas’s poems are noted for their attention to the English countryside and a particular colloquial style.

As a literary critic for the Daily Chronicle Thomas had regularly reviewed poetry, but he didn’t write his first poetry, encouraged by Frost, until the end of 1914 when living in Steep, East Hampshire. Two years later in 1916, his first book of verse, Six Poems, was published under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway. Perhaps this was because he lacked confidence and should his poems be poorly received he did not want this to affect his professional work. This was the only poetry published before his death, though he wrote more than 100 other poems.

It was when he was travelling on the Oxford to Worcester train to Frost’s home on 24 June 1914 that Thomas was inspired to write one of his best known poems. At 12.46, the train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (according to railway timetable buffs it was a scheduled stop), a small rural station in the heart of the Cotswold hills in Gloucestershire. He did not alight from the train, but describes a moment of calm pause in which he hears ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’.

Yes.  I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The Bus Shelter, Adlestrop, Gloucestershire

Adlestrop was not published until 1917, after Thomas’ death. The railway station closed in 1966 and the buildings were demolished. The village bus shelter however contains the station sign and a bench that was originally on the platform. A plaque on the bench quotes Thomas’s poem.

Thomas is the subject of a biographical play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky by Nick Dear, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London in November 2012. The play explores both his marriage to his adoring wife Helen, whose feelings Thomas would often trample on, and his uneven relationship with Frost. The play also fast-forwards to Frost’s return to England in 1957 and his cold refusal to meet Thomas’s widow as he sees her as having besmirched her husband’s memory through the publication of her memoirs.

Edward Thomas is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Agny in France. He is commemorated in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. There is a literary walk dedicated to Thomas at Shoulder of Mutton Hill in Steep which includes a memorial stone erected in 1935. The inscription includes the final line from one of his essays: ‘And I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey’.

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