I’d like to backtrack a bit and pick up the thread on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. In my original post at 3 Quarks Daily I’d argued that the poem is a ring-composition and that he plays a peculiar game with tense in the last stanza, slipping back into the post without giving us due warning – like you go to sleep nice and comfy in your familiar bed in your familiar bedroom in your familiar home and awaken in your familiar bed in Dr. Who’s freakin’ Tardis in the middle of god knows when and where! In my follow-up here at New Savanna I looked at alignment between sentences, stanzas, and ring-composition units, noting that these three structural streams do not line up, but interact in interesting ways.
Now I want to do something very traditional in literary criticism, take a look at some other things that Frost has said and look a bit into his artistic biography. My source in this is a very interesting recent article: David Wyatt, “Robert Frost and the Work of Retelling”, The Hopkins Review, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 2015 (New Series), pp. 387-404. Wyatt gives us this most interesting anecdote about young Frost (p. 401):
As early as 1892, in his high school valedictory address, Frost had coined a word for these acts of looking back. He calls them “after-thought.” Borrowing the word from the title of a sonnet by Wordsworth, Frost spoke of life as two-fold: “Not in the strife of action, is the leader made, nor in the face of crisis, but when all is over, when the mind is swift with keen regret, in the long after-thought. The after-thought of one action is the forethought of the next.” In this model of experience there is action and then there is after-thought.
But what of the poetic act? Frost continues: “The poet’s insight is his after-thought . . . . And the grandest of his ideas come when the last line is written.”
In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth had famously asserted:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
Thus poetry is a kind of repetition – a theme that will come to loom large in Western philosophical thought (think Nietzsche and his eternal return, Camus and Sisyphus, for example). So, we have Frost mining this vein while his mind is still blossoming. No longer a child, to be sure, nonetheless another Wordsworthian formula comes to mind: The child is father to the man.
Twenty years later (1912) Frost would write this dream? fantasy? recollection? in a letter to Susan Hayes Ward, an important poetry editor (Wyatt, pp. 402-403):
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noisless [sic] yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that too, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, could we but have made it out.
This puts us/Frost at the juncture of two roads in the woods. Wyatt observes (p. 403): “Here we can see a poet auditioning for a poem he did not yet know it was in him to write.” Something like that, for sure.
Nothing in Frost’s published work is any more uncanny than this imagined meeting in the woods. The pang of “The Road Not Taken” had lodged itself in the phrase “one traveler.” The speaker can only remain one if he gives up the option of traveling both roads, however similar or unlike they may be. In the letter, Frost literalizes these anxieties about the split self. There are also two roads in the letter, and a concern, as in the poem, with the “condition of both.” But the far more compelling divergence is between the two men. It is a classic doppelgänger moment, although one given its own peculiar Frostian slant.
I suppose. Can’t say I agree, or disagree, only that I’ve got nothing better to say myself. The important point is simply that there is an obvious kinship between that passage in the letter to Ward and the poem Frost would write four years later. Just how Frost’s mind made the journey from one to the other, that we don’t know.
Is the poem a repetition of that fantasy in another key? Does that fantasy echo the high school valedictory of twenty years earlier? Is this an example of how the past, through art, continues to live in the present, Wordsworth in Frost and now both of them in us?
Let us give Frost the last word, from his preface to his Collected Poems of Robert Frost (1939), “The Figure a Poem Makes”:
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.