In the original version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a little boy at the end of the story interrupts a festive parade by saying aloud that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
How many adults must have revisited the story and found they remembered it wrong, optimistic that everyone must have listened to him–that good triumphed over those who only pretended to spin cloth? But what actually happened in the story? The parade just went on.
The concept of “the road not taken” is a convenient rationale for choosing one road over another when there was more than one. “I knew I had made the better choice” is at once comforting and a veil for whatever errors in thinking accompanied it. Nonetheless, sometimes it is possible to make a difference when you see the handwriting on the wall or come upon the path that Robert Frost could not really discern from another path before having to choose one.
On Sunday, August 23, The New York Times Book Review carried a review of a new book about “The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong”– a 184 page treatment of what has proved to be a favorite item for Google searches.
The author, David Orr, says, “According to Google, then, ‘The Road Not Taken’ was, as of mid-2012, at least four times as searched as the central text of the modernist era—The Waste Land—and at least twenty-four times as searched as the most anthologized poem by Ezra Pound.”
And in the Favorite Poem Project of poet laureate Robert Pinksy, Orr reminds us, over eighteen thousand Americans submitted their favorite, “The Road Not Taken.”
Orr’s book values overlapping interpretations, and other Frost poems inspire similar thinking. In “Mending Wall,” it isn’t Frost who says “Good fences make good neighbors.” It was instead a phrase his neighbor uses, one that he had heard in turn from his father and couldn’t find a way to refute.
Frost is the opposition, reminding him that every spring they have to meet to mend the wall and every winter the stones fall from it. Besides this, they have completely different kinds of trees and so there would be no mistaking whose were whose, even without a wall. But his neighbor just repeats what he has heard, and so do legions of those who like nicely worded but sometimes dubious quotes.
Perhaps Orr is reminding his audience in his narrative of another view: Archibald MacLeish’s in Ars Poetica: “A poem should not mean but be.”And he parses words on the way to illuminating sentences. Orr notes, for instance, that Frost uses the word “road” rather than “path.” A path, he says, winds its way through nature, with all the curves and turns necessary to follow the landscape. A road, he notes, is manmade, weed-whacking its way through nature to create something that is not itself of nature.
One idea about walking that supports the art of T’ai chi: You never have to put the other foot down until you want to do so. That takes the idea of blind faith– as the concept where you take a step even if you don’t see the staircase—a step farther rather than a step back, perhaps counterintuitively. But it matters whose foot it is and where it steps.
And it isn’t just faith that benefits from a variation on “Look before you leap.” Justice benefits also. So does science. In his book, Letters to a Young Lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, known by many only for his ability to think on his feet in a courtroom, also points out the benefits of “The Road Not Taken,” using that poem to drive home the truth of it. In his view, the point at which the paths diverge is important. Even though it may not be possible to know beforehand which path to take, nevertheless it may become possible next time to know that a choice is about to present itself.
For instance, Sir Isaac Newton had already published his laws of gravity when the Salem witch trials began. There were educated, well-connected and well-read citizens who wrote and read in many languages even in New England at the time, and Newton’s law would have demonstrated that witches could not fly on broomsticks. At the time, medical diagnosis of “bewitchment”– by a Salem medical doctor named Griggs– was considered just dandy when no other cause could be found for symptoms.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote fictional accounts of the havoc caused when the duality of human nature—that “good” and “evil” exist in everyone—are denied and one side claims to be “good,” projecting the label of “evil” onto whatever group or individuals opposed them. These are paths that human beings have already taken that don’t have to be chosen again, because–guess what–“Been there and done that.”
What if a cost-benefit analysis or a feasibility study had preceded the parade in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Or the witch trials? Statistically-inclined types can create a grid, plug in the choices, and check off various points of evaluation, even assigning a numerical value for each choice—the familiar “on a scale of 1 to 10” works—and then add them up for each column. It’s a way to continue a conversation that doesn’t require envisioning what isn’t there, even when looking at diverging roads in the woods.