Frost’s reflection on a wander in his deeply-loved New England has become one of the most loved poems of the twentieth century. It’s not hard to see why. A totally straightforward decision about which path to take has such resonance. Probably for everyone.
We relate to Frost’s hesitation, as he tries to see as far as possible down the alternatives facing him and he can’t much to distinguish them. This is presumably a mapless journey, and is certainly an app-less journey – so he just has his instincts to go on in his woodland solitude. I’ve always found it rather liberating to have walks like that – whether in urban or rural settings. No great purpose other than the fun of it; no time constraints either; just the gentle amusement of following one’s nose (especially if without children in tow, desperate for a food or loo stop). As a result, it probably matters little which fork one takes. Or rather, it matters little at the time.
We relate to Frost’s realisation, “yet knowing how way leads onto way I doubted I should ever come back.” That’s just the way things go. He probably wouldn’t be able to find his way back, let alone need to. It’s our finitude that makes it thus – as he suggests in the first verse, we can’t be in two places at once.
Life is full of choices. In our finitude, we must select, because we can’t do it all, let alone have it all. From his standpoint, the two woodland paths seem similar: both have been covered by a fresh layer of autumnal leaves. But he clearly discerns that one is the more used. And so in a tiny hint of his adventurous spirit, he decides to take the “one less travelled by”.
And what a good decision. “That has made all the difference.” It may seem a curious one – especially if you’re fearful of getting lost. But it’s a small reminder that the way of the popular or well-worn is not necessarily the wiser.
Regular Q readers will know I have a soft spot for Hockney. I was wowed by his RA show a few years back. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea in the high arts (too populist, too popular, too rich!) but I love his joie de vivre, and the way he makes you see familiar things afresh. This picture (on the grandest scale) is of Winter Timber gathered by a footpath. I hesitated about combining it with Frost – it’s a bit obvious really. But there are several points of contact – would be interested in what you spot – and then the poem made me look at the picture more carefully (even though it’s very doubtful that Hockney had it in mind). And then I noticed the path off to the right, which I’d at first glance assumed was another purple tree. It’s clearly very different from the main track. But apart from that, it resonated wonderfully.
Then I noticed the poem’s title again. I’d always assumed it was called “The Road Less Travelled” – but no. He’s clearly leaving us with that perennial question, “what if?”.
I guess few of us ever really come to terms with our finitude.