A comparison of the ways in which Robert Frost explores journeys and choices in ‘Stopping by Woods’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’

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In both ‘Stopping by Woods’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’, Frost widely explores the themes of choices and journeys. Two bases on which Frost expresses these concepts in the two poems is through ambiguity or uncertainty, and as being either definitive or continuous.

 

In ‘The Road Not Taken’ we are able to see the ambiguity and uncertainty of the poet regarding making the choice. The second line in the first stanza reads, “And sorry I could not travel both.” What this exhibits is the way in which the poet does not have the conviction to clearly err on one side of the equation and continues to feel as though either option would have been suitable to take. This notion of pondering over a choice and yet still being unable to find an ultimate conclusion is displayed in the ending of the following line, “long I stood.” The fact that this is written in the first person adds a conversational and personal tone which almost leads to a sense that the poet/character is so desperately struggling to make a decision that he is even going to the extent of reaching out to the audience for assistance and ultimately closure in this pursuit. Again, this is further reiterated in the opening line of the second stanza, “Then took the other, as just as fair.”The character here looks at both choices as being equal in nature and thus the situation not meriting a clear and decisive choice to be made.  In this poem, Frost creates a semantic field of confusion to show that the choices that life throws each person’s way are certainly not always clear-cut and neat decisions but may be unpleasantly ambiguous in nature. In spite of this, each individual is called upon to choose what path they will take and subsequently endure whatsoever follows on from that.

Comparatively, Frost uses ambiguity in the poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but more so to explore journeys rather than choices. In the first stanza, Frost presents a scene of innocence and playfulness. There is a tone of uncertainty as the opening line is a question, “Whose woods these are, I think I know.”  Despite the character lacking the affirmative knowledge of who owns these woods, the decision is still made to venture into these woods. One can detect playfulness and cheekiness in the character as he says “He will not see me stopping here.” From this, we understand that the character is actually trespassing. Granted this may be a somewhat negative action, the purpose of this trespassing is simply, “To watch his woods fill up with snow.” Such a simple yet peaceful act of observing the gradual precipitation is innocent and seemingly void of malicious intent.

Though we detect this tone from the first stanza, Frost does not allow the second stanza to exhibit such an agreeable scene. It begins with an aura of discomposure as we read, “My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near.” Here, Frost begins painting a new picture, one where some deeper and perhaps more sinister meaning is at hand. The horse is a mere animal and thus unacquainted with the strange manners of Man to venture into choices and journeys that fall out of the common order of work.  Now the innocence of the animal has taken the place of the rider’s seeming innocence so that the rider is up to something darker. We read that he is, “Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.” These two different potential destinations of “the woods” and “the frozen lake” could display the end destinations of separate journeys made. The character is therefore at the crossroads of life and has to make a decision as to which way he will go.  Woods are commonly associated with uncertainty and darkness, whilst the word “frozen” connotes a harsh and inhospitable environment. Even more significantly is the following line “The darkest evening of the year.” Frost exemplifies an ominous and perturbing scene with this phrase and the reader is led to believe that the rider has a more sinister intent behind their actions.

In the last stanza, Frost bolsters this notion by promulgating the way in which he actually is fond of the darkness, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Considering this tenebrous place to be “lovely” is somewhat unsettling as it displays the convoluted thought processes of the character. This is sharply juxtaposed to the scene painted in the opening stanza and therefore leads to a sense of confusion as to what the aim of the character is with regards to this journey he is on.

Thus we see how, in both poems, the tool of ambiguity is utilised to illustrate the complex and obscure subcurrents that permeate life’s choices.

 

 

Withal, Frost explores the concepts of choices and journeys with commentary on the instigation and consequences of them in both poems.

In Stopping by Woods, Frost uses the final stanza to display the ongoing process of a journey and choice. The very title of the poem contains the word “Stopping” which is written in the present continuous form. This immediately evokes the sense of an occurrence that is processional in essence, as opposed to definitive.  Moreover, the ending stanza leaves the entire poem unresolved. The final lines read, “And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Frost drenches these final lines with literary techniques and meaning so as to make the most significant impact on the reader. In the first instance, the lines are exact repetitions of one another. This insinuates a protracted incident. Bolstering this is the fact that the final three lines begin with connectives that are typographically positioned directly vertically from one another, “But”, “And”, “And”. These repeating connectives, especially the repetition of “And”, perhaps denote a listing ad infinitum of tasks left to accomplish within this characters life. The shift in the rhyme scheme of ‘AABA’ to ‘DDDD’ in the final stanza makes this point also; it seems as though all that is left is to do and do and do and do [DDDD].  Subsequently, in poetic brilliance, Frost closes this poem with the very lack of closure to display how a journey can be ongoing in a person’s life.

Conversely, Frost seems to portray the exact opposite about choices and journeys in ‘The Road not Taken’.  Equally starting with the title, the word “Taken” is written in the past participle. Hence, from the outset of the poem, Frost communicates the impression of a conclusive outcome having already been reached before the poem has even begun. Interestingly, the poem is named ‘The Road not Taken’ as opposed to the ‘the Road taken’, displaying a narrative that focuses not on the designated journey but on the alternative that never came to pass.

This sense of completion is reaffirmed in the ending stanza as we read 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 sense of regret pervades explicitly in this last stanza; the word “sigh” is somewhat onomatopoeic in nature, allowing the reader to tangibly feel the resignation within the character’s heart. In the middle three lines, Frost builds up this acquiescence through the character’s view of the choice being far in the past. The line “Somewhere ages and ages hence” exhibits the way in which this individual regards this event to be so firmly behind that they are no longer able to specifically name when it occurred. Instead, the ambiguous and speculative word “Somewhere” is used. Significantly, though the character is unsure of exactly when this took place, there remains not even an inkling of a doubt into the fact that it was a long time ago, hence the repetition of “ages”. One could extrapolate how the person is perhaps actually pressing themselves down with the regret of their action and convinces themselves that there is no way of changing things. The final line goes on to reveal the implications of this action in the past. We read, “…that has made all the difference.” The absolute word “all” in describing the impact made encapsulates the essence of a series of irrevocable outcomes that do not merit even considering an attempt to alter them.  Ending here in this abysmal backdrop, Frost rams sharply home to the reader the way in which certain choices lead to certain journeys that are inexorably designated to follow the preordained path set before them.

Therefore, Frost seems to be displaying a contrast between Stopping by Woods and The Road not Taken with their respective diametrically opposed assertions on the conclusive nature of choices and the definitive or continual nature of the consequences [journeys] subsequently emanating from them.

 

 

Overall, Robert Frost widely examines journeys and choices not merely in Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken, but in the majority of his poems. As a maverick of the Modernist movement in literature, Frost’s poems frequently dissect the choices that Man makes and scrutinize what exactly that means for world afterwards in a strikingly harsh manner. With Stopping by Woods and The Road not Taken, Frost uses a semantic field of dubiety to illuminate the ambivalence and vacillation with which people are called to make certain decisions in life.  Simultaneously, Frost also uses the poems to instantiate how life choices can be either marked and conclusive events with unalterable consequences, or processional occurrences that one continues to change and affect into their present day life.  All such impressions and interpretations, however, share one thing in common: all are afforded their existence from the masterful command of literature that Frost possessed.

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