Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Roads Not Taken: A Study in Poetic Mechanism

Another working paper posted; links, abstract, and introduction as usual.

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Abstract: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a ring composition three levels deep: 1 2 Ω 2’ 1’. The central section consists of lines 9 through 12 cuts across the boundary between the second (ll. 6-10) and third (ll. 11-14) stanzas. There is a subtle shift in tense in line 16 in which the poet in effect travels back into the past, at the moment of decision captured in the poem, so that he can anticipate the present moment in which the poem unfolds. Thus the end of the poem rejoins the beginning, not merely through the repetition of a line, but through a trick in time.


Introduction: Another Ring Discovered 2

Preliminaries: Describing Form, and a Precedent 2
A Road Literary Critics Don’t Travel 3
A Parallel in “Kubla Khan” 3
Frost’s Text: The Road Not Taken 5
Robert Frost, Time Traveler: The Road Not Taken 5
Poetic Mechanism 6
But What About Meaning? 10
Further Thoughts 11
Alignment in “The Road Not Taken” 11
More Frostiness 14
More About the Poem 16

Introduction: Another Ring Discovered

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is one of the best-known poems in the English language and a secondary school favorite in America. It would be a bit much to assert that every schoolchild has read the poem, but many have, for they’ve had no choice. Many critics written about the poem as well and there seems to be widespread agreement that the poem is a bit deceptive, as poems are wont to be.

Still, when, prompted by a post in 3 Quarks Daily, I set out to read it again, long after my schoolboy years, I wasn’t expecting to discover something in the poem that, apparently, other critics have missed. Yes, I know I know, the great texts yield endless riches. But what I discovered was something that was, to me anyhow, obvious, something about the poem’s form. Yes, four stanzas of five lines, rhymed ABAAC – that too is obvious. We learn how to do that kind of description in secondary school.

But that’s about it as far as formal description goes. After that the search for meaning takes over and never lets up. And so most of the discussion of this poem, as of others, is about meaning, and its formal features are either ignored or treated as ornamentation.

What was obvious about this poem, almost as soon as I’d reread it, is that it is a ring-composition, which I explain in detail a bit later. But I shouldn’t have had to discover that. Just as it is commonly known that dogs have four legs and a tail, so I should be commonly known that “The Road Not Taken” is a ring-composition. Once you see that, then you can see how the poem has three structural principles operating in parallel, I write about that as well.

Such a simple poem, such a rich text. So much that’s not been observed.

When WILL we open our eyes and ears?

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