“I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems,” Robert Frost, born on this day in 1874 famously said. He saw how prone his dark, ironic, and complex poems — which take place against the backdrop of New England’s harsh and stunning natural landscape — were to misinterpretation.
And even though his poems are some of the first we learn (I was given a quarter by my grandmother to memorize “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” at a young age) and adorn our yearbooks and Facebook walls, we often don’t get a chance to talk about the hidden layer of meaning beneath the pastoral imagery.
In fact, misinterpreting Robert Frost has become a pop culture meme in itself. On Orange Is the New Black, Piper lectures her fellow inmates about the importance of the fact that the two roads in “The Road Not Taken” are, in fact, the same, and actually seem to be equally trodden-upon. They only are described as more and less traveled in the speaker’s projected future reminiscences. Piper is right; the poem is about how the passage of time lends a bigger weight to our past choices, a significance that wasn’t initially present at all. Thus the last few lines, which say, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ somewhere ages and ages hence.” Piper explicates:
Everyone thinks the poem means to break away from the crowd and do your own thing, but if you read it, Frost is very clear that the two roads are exactly the same. He just chooses one at random. And then it’s only later at a dinner party when he’s talking about it that he tells everyone he chose the road less traveled by, but he’s lying. So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, shit just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.
And then her fellow inmates threaten to strangle her. As Slate’s David Haglund noted at the time, “Her less affluent fellow inmates, whose choices frequently have grave and irreparable consequences, don’t have the luxury of such fatalism.”
Perhaps the most maddening cultural aspect about this gorgeous poem is that people who embrace it as a maxim are often doubly blind. In saying this, I think back to the dozens of conventionally popular classmates from all of our youth who chose “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” to adorn their yearbook pages — thus simultaneously misinterpreting the poem and mislabeling themselves as non-conformists.
And then there’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who mansplained to Congress and America that the poem was about making tough choices in tough situations. “You have to live life to know that the difficult path is usually the one less traveled, but it will make all the difference for the future of my country,” he said. Critics on Twitter were quick to note that Netanyahu’s is a poor reading at best.
“The Road Not Taken” may be America’s most misinterpreted poem, but “Mending Wall” is another classic that gets taken out of context all the time. Conservative types in particular may be liable to take the refrain “good fences make good neighbors” at face value, when in fact it’s about the “darkness” and ignorance that go along with the attitude the phrase encompasses. As Frost’s narrator says of his neighbor who relies on the “good fences make good neighbors” maxim: “He moves in darkness as it seems to me,/ Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”
The West Wing famously addressed this common misinterpretation as well, when Donna hears a right-wing politico make the mistake and Josh lectures her into an understanding of the mistake:
JOSH Here he quotes Robert Frost. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Did he talk about that? … DONNA Basically, that if you stay within your personal space, you’ll end up getting along with everyone. … JOSH Is that what Frost meant? DONNA No, he meant that boundaries are what alienate us from each other. JOSH Why did he say “Good fences make good neighbors?” DONNA He was being ironic.
Much like “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall” is often attributed a meaning that’s opposite of what was intended. But Frost knew what he was doing; in order to critique common, shallow ways of thinking, he had to depict them. And because those ways of thinking are so widespread, people see themselves in his poems, and not the critique of themselves (in this way, his work reminds me of Jane Austen’s, in that people often treasure it for exactly the qualities it sends up).
A third poem often subjected to misreading is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” my childhood favorite. While many think the speaker is only enamored of the woods because of their beauty, the “dark and deep” qualities have fascinated critics, who see the stopping and staring as perhaps an expression of a subconscious desire to “sleep” permanently, to find death and oblivion in the woods. In this reading, the repetition of the line “and miles to go before I sleep” could be interpreted as weary resignation, as the speaker leaves and moves on — or even futile self-remonstration, as his will to keep moving, returning to genteel society, ebbs and he stays by the woods to his doom.
Of course, the genius of Frost is that these layers interplay so perfectly in his best work: the lovely and accessible layer (because his imagery is exquisite even on face value) and the dark and deep layer.
The famously gruff poet was supposedly amused by people’s failure to understand some of his most popular works. Flipping through the pages of his collected poems yields a discovery of dozens upon dozens of pessimistic, enigmatic, and melancholy verses, whose perfect surface composition belie their subtlety.