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Dissecting Robert Frost- Did We Misunderstand Him?

The poems are hailed as stalwarts of individualism and a compendium on the harried nature of present-day life. Are They ?

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At commencements, motivational speeches and even funerals we hear quotes from Robert Frost’s two poems

1) The Road Not Taken and

2) Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

The poems are hailed as stalwarts of individualism and a compendium on the harried nature of present-day life.

Think the lines:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less travelled by,”

Or

“But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep”

In of itself, those lines speak volumes about having the courage to take on a career or task that’s difficult or non-traditional. Similarly, the ‘promises’ stanza, is related to our busy life that does not allow one to enjoy the beauty of nature or the many tasks that one needs to accomplish prior to the end of the day. While there is no harm (in fact, tremendous benefits) to this simplistic interpretation, it’s important to look at a different angle.

Robert Frost’s life was one of tragedy. His Father and Mother died when he was young. Of his six children, Elliot died of Cholera when he was 4, Carol committed suicide at 40, Marjorie died at 29. Only Lesly and Irma outlived him. His wife, mother and him, all suffered from depression.

Frost has been described as — selfish, egomaniacal, dour, cruel and angry man. Quite different from the wholesome American poet that we have come to love and adore.

In Road Not Taken, Frost must make a choice and chooses the one less trodden as being “grassy and wanted wear.” Yet he uses the word ‘Same’ to describe them. Later, he tells us with a ‘Sigh’, that the road he took “made all the difference”. There is an underlying current of sadness and regret. We assume that the difference made was positive. The decision he took could have been the wrong one. The decision he took was one he could not “come back”and change. There is a finality in his decision that appears to be one of remorse. Perhaps the other road was a better choice.

The poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is just as dark. It is the “darkest evening of the Year.” Possibly a reflection of his state of mind. He speaks of the owner of the woods; whose house is in the village. The house is in the village would be a church.

He is speaking of God. Frost wants to ‘stop’ in the woods. He wants to go to his God in the woods. A desire to end his life.

Sorrowfully it’s his ‘promises’ and obligations that prevent him from ending his life. He realizes he needs to go on and complete what life has in store for him.

As a child I remember memorizing and reciting these two poems. For the longest time I have used them as inspirational pieces.

I have no regrets on how the poems were interpreted to me.

Lifelong learning is about reinterpretation and looking at different viewpoints.

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