This is part 4 of a series introducing poetry to those who have had bad experiences reading poems. Poetry is to be experienced not unlike life itself. Here we will explore the poem, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. I will not give you a background of the poem or a detailed analysis of the rhythm, meter and societal implications of Frosts' poem. Instead, let me tell you an ancient story about a warrior and the defining moment he experienced.
What is Your Defining Moment?
The great general sat tall upon his horse. Behind him were fifty thousand men, soldiers many, peasants some, skilled tradesmen a few. The incessant sounds of neighing horses, clanking swords and dropped hammer suddenly ceased. All was quiet. Every man waited and watched their general. He dropped to the ground with the expert movements of a lifelong rider, and he took slow strides to the river. The river that blocked his army from their final destination.
Reverentially he kneeled before the river as if feeling it necessary to pray to the nereid-—the river goddess—he believed resided there. Washing his hands and face in the water, he rose to his full height, held up his hand and gave the command to cross.
When the first horse of his first commander had entered the sacred river, Julius Caesar, the Roman General, the conqueror of Rome’s most ancient enemies, craned his neck and whispered to the heavens: Alea Iacta Est—The Die has been Cast.
This was no ordinary river they were crossing, it was the Rubicon River, the river demarcating the entrance into Rome. In sending a Roman army over that river, Caesar and every man with him were now enemies of Rome, they were all exiles in their own homeland.
Those decisive moments happen in big and small ways to us all, for we all have our Rubicon River to cross. Caesar believed that the Roman Republic was festering and dying and that only he could save it, only by taking Rome by force could he restore the old ways. Whether he was correct or not is irrelevant for our purposes, because the important lesson is the awareness of our own Rubicon River. He crossed it. He cast the die even though he knew he would have the fight of his life—literally. He would face the grand armies of Rome with his small band of men. His old friends, his family, his brothers and sisters would call him a traitor, but he would cross that river, and let the die fall where it may, for Caesar could say he made his decision and he gave his all.
Your Rubicon may be declaring a major, or dropping out of school; it may be marrying your high school sweetheart or deciding to continue your search for the right person; it could be pursuing a promotion at work or starting your own business; staying in a job you dislike or taking time off and writing a book. Whatever it is, your Rubicons, your Roads, are those decisions which will define your life.
Our next poem, “The Road NOT Taken,” by Robert Frost, embodies this point in our lives. In effect, the poem draws a picture of two similar looking roads that diverge in a wood. The traveler in the poem stood “and looked down one as far as [he] could to where it bent in the undergrowth.” The end, the success or failure of any endeavor is unknown; our vision of the outcome is blocked. But that road must be taken, the River crossed—or not. Even a decision to sit and contemplate the two roads is a decision to not act, but to think about acting.
Frost, at the close of the poem gives one of the greatest bits of advice in history. When confronted with these decisions, when “two roads diverged in a wood, [take] the one less traveled by, and that [will make] all the difference.”
Do you see his advice? Do you have the determination to cross that Rubicon? Only you can answer that.
POETRY TIP: Read a poem several times in a row
The greater the poet the more mastery they have over language. They can play with the order of the words, the placement of sounds, the length of each line and each stanza. When you read a poem your mind will be searching for the normal use of the words, and thus, like an obscure puzzle, the poem will not automatically appear to you. Like one of those blurry paintings that, the longer you stare at it, a clear image begins to appear, the same is true of great poetry. The more you read a great poem, the clearer will become the hidden message contained within.
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear, Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back. 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.