William H. Pritchard

William H. Pritchard: On "The Gift Outright"

[In the poem Frost wrote to read aloud at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as President of the United States, he willed] the realities of modern power politics into an alliterative "golden age of poetry and power."

. . . .

Except that, on the occasion, he was unable to read more than a few lines of the poem, troubled as he was by the sun's glare that bright, cold January day, but at least as much by the poem's newness to him, his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went. Or perhaps, as he had been wont to say about himself, it was a sort of judgment. He had been tempted to believe that it was a great occasion at which he would perform-not just a transfer of power from one party to another, both of which were filled with politicians. Like many others, he conceived the new president as Young Lochinvar, the perfect combination of spirit and flesh, passion and toughness, poetry and reality, Harvard and Irish. It was almost as if, in the language of his poem "Kitty Hawk," Kennedy had been sent "As a demonstration / That the supreme merit / Lay in risking spirit / In substantiation." And Frost wrote the extravagant words about the "next Augustan age," as if by proclaiming them he could help it come into being, could substantiate it. But the poet was old, the flesh was weak, and he could not utter the words he had written. At this moment of disaster, he called on some resource and rose to a level in every way superior to the pumped-up one of the new poem's advertisement. Putting behind him the stumbling uncertainties of voice and tone which characterized his attempt to deliver the new poem, he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices read "The Gift Outright" impeccably: "The land was ours before we were the land's." His performance thus attained a dramatic, even a heroic quality, which it would otherwise have lacked if things had gone off perfectly. The imperfect version had more of "life" in it: in the midst of flattery and display, the sound of sense suddenly and movingly made itself felt.

From Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same"

Though it is probably wrong to speak either of wildness or a "joke" in relation to "Never Again Would Birds' Song. . .," still the "eloquence so soft" with which Frost unrolls this quietest and most discreet of his sonnets, has about it the air of a tour de force. Like his heroine Eve, he has added "an oversound" to the world of created sounds--bird calls, love calls, sonnets, in which he lives. The sonnet's cunning phrasing, with its artfully polite phrases--"Admittedly," "Moreover," "Be that as may be," all at the beginning of lines--suggests the impressive blend of delicacy and firmness with which the case is made for Eve's persistence in song. . . .

From Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Frost was eager to show that his excellence extended also to the shortest of figures, as in the perfectly limpid, toneless assertion of "Nothing Gold Can Stay". . . .

The elegant "subsides" gently names the process of natural changing and metaphorical couplings within the poem; as "green is gold," as "Her early leaf’s a flower" (where the contraction makes even more imperceptible the seeing of one thing in terms of another), as "dawn" changes both in fact and in words (from "dawn" to "day"). The poem is striking for the way it combines the easy delicacy of "Her early leaf’s a flower" with monumentalities about Eden and the transient fading of all such golden things, all stated in a manner that feels inevitable. It is as if in writing "Nothing Gold Can Stay," Frost had in mind his later definition of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. The poem's last word proclaims the momentariness of the "gold" that things like flowers and Eden, dawn and poems share. So the shortness of the poem is also expressive of its sense.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

With respect to his most anthologized poem, "Stopping By Woods. . ." which he called "my best bid for remembrance," such "feats" are seen in its rhyme scheme, with the third unrhyming line in each of the first three stanzas becoming the rhyme word of each succeeding stanza until the last one, all of whose end words rhyme and whose final couplet consists of a repeated "And miles to go before I sleep." Or they can be heard in the movement of the last two lines of stanza three:

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

As with "Her early leaf's a flower," the contraction effortlessly carries us along into "the sweep / Of easy wind" so that we arrive at the end almost without knowing it.

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of "content" or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man's existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion--his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston--he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: "He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake." We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert, they establish a sound against which the "other sound" of the following lines can, by contrast, make itself heard. Frost's fondness for this couplet suggests that however much he cared about the "larger" issues or questions which "Stopping By Woods . . ." raises and provokes, he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which could more naturally have been said about himself--that his life as a poet was "a revel in the felicities of language." "Stopping By Woods . . ." can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miniature revel in such felicities.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William H. Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"

"The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" tells of desolation, of a farmhouse which burned leaving only its barn, into and out of which the birds now fly through broken windows, "Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been." Yet, the poet corrects himself, the murmur is only like it, not the same as it. Birds do not grieve over what the human imagination finds desolate and sad; instead, nature seems to renew itself for them, lilacs, dry pump and fence post are still there, still carrying on in the way things do. In the final stanza Frost insists that

For them there was really nothing sad. But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept, One had to be versed in country things Not to believe the phoebes wept.

The diminished thing, so often celebrated in Mountain Interval, can be viewed here in the way the phoebes persist in their housekeeping, and to recognize this persistence for what it is one needs to be versed in country things. It is a nice stroke that Frost does not end the poem with the positive security, potentially complacent, of being so versed, as if the speaker were a wise know-it-all. Rather, the last line reaches out to what one would believe if one were deluded. That possibility is strongly there in the stanza's first line -- "For them there was really nothing sad" -- where the "really" acts as a check on the equally strong impulse (and a traditional poetic one all the way back through pastoral poetry) to believe that the birds are responsively grieving at the spectacle of human loss. Thus, in the last line, "Not to believe" doesn't cancel out the impulse to believe. After all, the poem's last word is "wept."

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

Here, more so than in "The Oven Bird," the comfort of a warmly human subject is held out; no one who ever responded to a Norman Rockwell magazine cover could but be taken by the old man, alone in his house ("All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him"), unable to summon up the resources to hold the winter night at bay:

What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand. What kept him from remembering what it was That brought him to that creaking room was age.

But if lovers of Rockwell had paused over these lines and tried to read and listen to them, they might well have noted how odd is their disposition. The "sense" of them is that the old man can't see out because the lamp won't permit him to see out -- all he gets back is an image of himself. And if he cannot see out, neither can he see in; he is so old that he can't remember how or why he is where he is. But what, in the prose paraphrase are concerned and sympathetic insights into the plight of old age, sound rather different when experienced through the sing-song, rather telegraphic formulations of the lines. As with "The Oven Bird" there is a heavy use of the verb "to be": "was" occurs three times in four lines, something a novice writer of poetry would try to avoid. And there are also three "whats," two of which occur in a single line ("What kept him from remembering what it was"), designed to make it hard to indulge in sad feelings about old age -- one notices the way that "age" is quietly buried at the very end of the next line.

Apropos of his sister Jeanie, Frost claimed that as he grew older he found it easier to lie awake and worry about other people's troubles. But he is at least as much a critic of such sympathetic identification with others -- lonely old men or oven birds -- as a practitioner of it. Or rather, some of the best poems in Mountain Interval derive their energy from the play of movement toward and withdrawal from the subject contemplated, play such as can be seen in two lines further on which summarize the old man in his setting;

A light he was to no one but himself Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what.

By itself, the first of these lines could figure as a compelling and moving statement of the human condition, eyesight and insight failing as death comes on. And, typically, Frost won't let us read it just that way, although having said it the poem lodges it in our minds. But the inspiring saying does not stand by itself, isolated in a memorable line; instead, it continues over into the next one, flattening out the ringing declaration by moving it to the homely, revealing, "Where now he sat," then continuing by acting as if the old man's concerns can’t be our concern -- we can't know the "what" that only he is concerned with. An even more forceful, because final, example of this movement toward and away from the subject of contemplation occurs in the poem's final three lines which took at the man, now fallen asleep after "he consigned to the moon" not his soul to keep, but "his snow upon the roof, / His icicles along the wall to keep":

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It's thus he does it of a winter night.

The voice becomes broadly expansive as it moves from "aged man" to the generic "man," separated by expressive dashes; then from house to farm to the larger countryside, as if it is about to break under the weight of all this intimidating, alien nature. And having arrived at just the point where such a break might be imagined, the sentence turns itself around in the middle of a line, with the important "or" -- "or if he can, / It's thus he does it of a winter night." That is where we are to end, with the "what" encountered earlier now transformed into an equally blunt "thus." We know how "thus he does it," but all we know is what we have been shown about it by the poem. Frost's procedure, again typically so, is not to send us out into a "real" world of lonely, aged men on New England farms (they could as well be Minnesotan or Nebraskan ones) but back into the poetic life given sound and shape in a particular, even a noticeably peculiar, order of words and sentence sounds. It is there that any house-keeping, or life-keeping, will have to be accomplished.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William H. Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "The Wood-Pile"

The "persona" narratives from the book - "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile" - also strive for inclusiveness although they are spoken throughout by a voice we are tempted to call "Frost." This voice has no particular back-country identity, nor is it obsessed or limited in its point of view; it seems rather to be exploring nature, other people, ideas, ways of saying things, for the sheer entertainment they can provide. Unlike poems such as "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," which are inclined toward the tragic or the pathetic, nothing "terrible" happens in the personal narratives, nor does some ominous secret lie behind them. In "The Wood-Pile," for example, almost nothing happens at all; its story, its achieved idea or wisdom, the whole air with which it carries itself, is quite unmemorable. A man out walking in a frozen swamp decides to turn back, then decides instead to go farther and see what will happen. He notes a bird in front of him and spends some time musing on what the bird must be thinking, then sees it settle behind a pile of wood. The pile is described so as to bring out the fact that it has been around for some time. With a reflection about whoever it was who left it there, "far from a useful fireplace," the poem concludes. And the reader looks up from the text, wonders if he has missed something, perhaps goes back and reads it again to see if he can catch some meaning which has eluded him. But "The Wood-Pile" remains stubbornly unyielding to any attempt at ransacking it for a meaning not evidently on the surface.

This surface is a busy one, as when the speaker meets the bird: A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather -- The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

The bird is teased for its egoism in thinking that the world revolves around his subjective hopes and fears, and his nervousness is amusing because never was there a less predatory or even purposeful figure than the walker in this poem, who early along - in deciding to continue rather than turn back - put it this way: "No, I will go on farther - and we shall see." See what? See things like a bird lighting in a tree, and be free to make up a story about why it doesn't speak, or how jealously protective it is of the white feather in its tail? Being free to "see" means indulging in such harmless playful fantasies the freedom of whose play is a measure of its solitary creation, far from any human or social situation. Perhaps the point of maximum play occurs in the lines about the bird's caution as he lights in the tree and determines to look only: "And say no word to tell me who he was / Who was so foolish as to think what he thought." The monosyllabic tongue-twisting aspect of these lines is effective in mixing up the reader: who is more "foolish," man or bird, and how on earth can one tell?

Then there is the wood-pile itself, a cord of maple, split, piled and measured

                    ... four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year's cutting, Or even last year's or the year's before. The wood was grey and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it, though, on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall ...

This is a thoroughly unexciting presentation of what might lay claim to be the world's most unexceptional phenomenon, yet it engages the man enough to occupy him for the remainder of the poem. More interesting than anything it "says" is the way the presentation resists, as solidly as does the sunken woodpile, our readerly efforts to find a message in it, to take it as a symbol for something or other important. In so resisting us, the woodpile confirms the teasing character of the whole poem, always leading us on, promising that around the next corner, past the next tree, we shall see something, if we but have faith to follow the walker: and then, sure enough, there it is - an old woodpile with clematis wound round it, its very situation (its "stake and prop" about to collapse) precarious.

This is all we see, except that Frost moves to reflection, concluding the poem with these lines in which the pile of wood is extended into something more:

I thought that only Someone who lives in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

The final line has been rightly admired, but its brilliance almost blinds us to the fact that the reflection which it concludes is in no sense a stunning or profound one. The thought that "someone" who abandoned this pile of wood must be one who "lived in turning to fresh tasks," is certainly uncontroversial and hardly provocative of further speculation. Again the interest lies not in "content" but in the way a sentence develops over seven lines, winding from the "I" to the "someone" and finally to the "handiwork" whose thermal activity is celebrated in the ingenuity of the final three lines. As with other moments in the poem, no great claims are made, no meanings are held out for everyone to use, no praise or blame is assigned to motive or action.

Early in "The Wood-Pile" the walker is surrounded by "tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by / So as to say for certain I was here / Or somewhere else . . ." By the poem's end a marking has been taken, a place named, though in a way so fanciful as to establish that it is poetry we are responding to when we try to think of that decaying pile, warming the frozen swamp as best it can.

To alter the walker's final thought: only someone, like a poet, who lives in turning to fresh tropes could write a poem like the one Frost has written here, and it is an appropriate conclusion to what remains the most original, even revolutionary, book he would ever write. We need to recall once more the language Edward Thomas used in defining and in praising it, about how Frost trusted his convictions about the validity of speech in poetry, of sentence sounds employed with "no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other." Despite the presence of back-country characters and scenes in this "book of people," it is as a book of sentence sounds that it most truly exists, as a triumphant vindication of the poetic theory Frost had designed, and as a monument to how much could be accomplished by trusting to the rendering of speech. At the end of "Home Burial," the wife lashes out at her husband in exasperation: "You - oh, you think the talk is all . . ." But for the composer of these poems, the talk is all, whether that of his imagined characters or of himself speaking aloud.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On Robert Frost's Life and Career

Frost was born in San Francisco, where he spent his first eleven years. After the death of his father, a journalist, he moved with his mother and sister to eastern Massachusetts near his paternal grandparents. He wrote his first poems while a student at Lawrence High School, from which he graduated as co-valedictorian with the woman he was to marry, Elinor Miriam White. He entered Dartmouth College in the fall of 1892 but stayed for less than a term, returning home to teach school and to work at various jobs, including factory-hand and newspaperman.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press. 

William H. Pritchard: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

With respect to his most anthologized poem, "Stopping By Woods. . ." which he called "my best bid for remembrance," such "feats" are seen in its rhyme scheme, with the third unrhyming line in each of the first three stanzas becoming the rhyme word of each succeeding stanza until the last one, all of whose end words rhyme and whose final couplet consists of a repeated "And miles to go before I sleep." Or they can be heard in the movement of the last two lines of stanza three:

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

  The only other sound's the sweep

  Of easy wind and downy flake.

As with "Her early leaf's a flower," the contraction effortlessly carries us along into "the sweep / Of easy wind" so that we arrive at the end almost without knowing it.

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of "content" or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man's existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion--his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston--he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: "He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake." We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert, they establish a sound against which the "other sound" of the following lines can, by contrast, make itself heard. Frost's fondness for this couplet suggests that however much he cared about the "larger" issues or questions which "Stopping By Woods . . ." raises and provokes, he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which could more naturally have been said about himself--that his life as a poet was "a revel in the felicities of language." "Stopping By Woods . . ." can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miniature revel in such felicities.

 

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

William H. Pritchard: On "The Road Not Taken"

On December 16, 1916, he received a warm letter from Meiklejohn, looking forward to his presence at Amherst and saying that that morning in chapel he had read aloud "The Road Not Taken," "and then told the boys about your coming. They applauded vigorously and were evidently much delighted by the prospect."

Alexander Meiklejohn was an exceptionally high-minded educator whose principles and whose moral tone toward things may be illustrated most briefly and clearly by some statements from his essay "What the College Is." This, his inaugural address as president of Amherst, was printed for a time as an introduction to the college catalogue. What the college was, or should be -what Meiklejohn hoped to make Amherst into - was a place to be thought of as "liberal," that is, "essentially intellectual": "The college is primarily not a place of the body, nor of the feelings, nor even of the will; it is, first of all, a place of the mind." Introducing "the boys" to the intellectual life led for its own sake, would save them from pettiness and dullness, would save them from being one of what Meiklejohn referred to as "the others":

There are those among us who will find so much satisfaction in the countless trivial and vulgar amusements of a crude people that they have no time for the joys of the mind. There are those who are so closely shut up within a little round of petty pleasures they that have never dreamed of the fun of reading and conversing and investigating and reflecting.

A liberal education would rescue boys from stupidity, its purpose being to draw from that "reality-loving American boy" something like "an intellectual enthusiasm." But this result could not be achieved, Meiklejohn added, without a thorough reversal of the curriculum: "I should like to see every freshman at once plunged into the problems of philosophy," he said with enthusiasm.

Now, five years after his address, he was bringing to Amherst someone outside the usual academic orbit, a poet who lacked even a college degree. But despite - or perhaps because of - this lack, the poet had escaped triviality, was an original mind who knew about living by ideas. For he had written among other poems "The Road Not Taken," given pride of place in the just-published Mountain Interval as not only its first poem but also printed in italics, as though to make it also a preface to and motto for the poems which followed. It was perfect for Meiklejohn's purposes because it was no idle reverie, no escape through lovely language into a soothing dream world, but a poem rather which announced itself to be "about" important issues in life: about the nature of choice, of decision, of how to go in one direction rather than another and how to feel about the direction you took and didn't take. For President Meiklejohn and for the assembled students at compulsory chapel, it might have been heard as a stirring instance of what the "liberal college" was all about, since it showed how, instead of acceding to the petty pleasures, the "countless trivial and vulgar amusements" offered by the world or the money-god or the values of the marketplace, an individual could go his own way, live his own life, read his own books, take the less traveled road:

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence; Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

The poem ended, the boys "applauded vigorously," and surely Meiklejohn congratulated himself just a bit on making the right choice, taking the less traveled road and inviting a poet to join the Amherst College faculty.

What the president could hardly have imagined, committed as he was in high seriousness to making the life of the college truly an intellectual one, was the unruliness of Frost's spirit and its unwillingness to be confined within the formulas - for Meiklejohn, they were the truths - of the "liberal college." On the first day of the new year, 1917, just preparatory to moving his family down from the Franconia farm into a house in Amherst, Frost wrote Untermeyer about where the fun lay in what he, Frost, thought of as "intellectual activity":

You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won't formulate - that almost but don't quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.

The "fun" is "outside," and lies in doing something like teasing, suggesting formulae that don't formulate, or not quite. The fun is not in being "essentially intellectual" or in manifesting "intellectual enthusiasm" in Meiklejohn's sense of the phrase, but in being "subtle," and not just subtle but so much so as to fool "the casual person" into thinking that what you said was obvious. If we juxtapose these remarks with his earlier determination to reach out as a poet to all sorts and kinds of people, and if we think of "The Road Not Taken" as a prime example of a poem which succeeded in reaching out and taking hold, then something interesting emerges about the kind of relation to other people, to readers - or to students and college presidents - Frost was willing to live with, indeed to cultivate.

For the large moral meaning which "The Road Not Taken" seems to endorse - go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make "all the difference"-does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance "really about the same," that they "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had "perhaps the better claim." But in the final stanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told "with a sigh" and "ages and ages hence." At that imagined time and unspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsive matter into a deliberate one of taking the "less traveled" road:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Is it not the high tone of poignant annunciation that really makes all the difference? An earlier version of the poem had no dash after "I"; presumably Frost added it to make the whole thing more expressive and heartfelt. And it was this heartfelt quality which touched Meiklejohn and the students.

Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that "I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun of the thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:

Nothing ever so sincere That unless it's out of sheer Mischief and a little queer It wont prove a bore to hear.

The mischievous aspect of "The Road Not Taken" is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a "sincere" poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.

 

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.