by James Ross Macdonald
A sense of the future as fundamentally circumscribed by the choices of the past runs through Mountain Interval (1916), Robert Frost’s third published poetry collection. The theme is announced and explored in the collection’s first and most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” in which Frost deploys the forked path in the woods as a tacit structural metaphor for the course of life itself. While the situation evokes the first canto of the Divine Comedy, Frost avoids Dante’s overtly allegorical manner by creating a speaker whose spare vocabulary and vernacular syntax lend the poem a more parable-like narrative force.
That speaker’s well-known conclusion, that selecting the “road less traveled by” has made “all the difference” in his life, has left many readers to believe that the poet means to extol Thoreauvian nonconformity. Many of the textual clues concerning that difference, however, are much more ambiguous: the poem’s title focuses attention not on the speaker’s actual choice but on its hypothetical alternative, while his assertion that he will tell the story of his decision “with a sigh” seems to call into question whether that judgment was the right one, or at least to express significant regret for the unknown possibilities foreclosed by the necessity of choosing.
Other readers have even come to doubt the speaker’s claim that there has been any true difference at all, since the two roads are scarcely differentiated from each other: they were “just as fair,” and “the passing there / had worn them really about the same.” In this view, Frost means his audience to discern in the speaker a human tendency to evaluate one’s past in terms of individual agency when, in fact, no true choice was ever at hand, since the indistinguishable alternatives rendered the act of picking meaningless. One possible answer to this quandary is suggested by the poem’s temporal vantage: neither set in the moment of decision nor in the place “somewhere ages and ages hence” where the speaker says he will sigh in telling the story, Frost instead selects an intermediate time in which the speaker can still waver momentarily in ambivalence.
Many of the feelings of this speaker concerning time’s effects become thematic ligatures which bind the collection together. “In the Home Stretch” takes up the question of the past’s presence in the form of a poetic dialogue between husband and wife as they move into a new house in the country. For all the sense of a fresh start such an occasion imparts, however, the woman realizes that they are “not young” and, in looking over the new rooms, she seems already able to see the ways in which the next years will play out. When the movers create a racket overhead, she tells her husband that
Once left alone,
You and I, dear, will go with softer steps
Up and down stairs and through the rooms, and none
But sudden winds that snatch them from our hands
Will ever slam the doors
Even the movers themselves look to the day’s events to give shape to what is to come for the couple: after fitting the stove into place without a hitch, one notes that it is “good luck when you move in to begin / with good luck with your stovepipe.” Whether it is the house itself or the life experiences of the people in it, it becomes clear to the pair that their future is inseparable from the composite of their past, symbolized by their still-unpacked possessions: “it would take me forever to recite all that not new in where we find ourselves,” the wife tells her husband. And yet, that past proves inaccessible or enigmatic. Neither one claims to know who wished the move in the first place, a question which the wife explains is futile altogether.
It’s who first thought that thought. You’re searching, Joe,
For things that don’t exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings—there are no such things.
There are only middles.”
Like that momentary midway setting of “The Road Not Taken,” the couple find themselves poised between a fixed past and a future which already seems determined. But rather than something to be regretted, the poet suggests the continuities between past and present as a kind of consolation in the midst of change: as the couple go to bed, the rays of light from the stove dance on the ceiling, “as much at home as if they’d always danced there.”
A different sense of choice and reflection animates “The Gum-Gatherer,” a poem which strongly calls to mind Wordsworth’s encounter with the leech-gatherer in “Resolution and Independence.” In contrast, however, to that man’s austerity and piety, the gum-gatherer met by the speaker on the road is a bit of a rogue and a squatter. Frost lays particular emphasis on the pleasures of the gum in the man’s bag, “scented stuff / like uncut jewels:” as the poem proceeds, the speaker seems to become increasingly entranced by the physical presence of the resin, which “comes to market golden brown; / but turns to pink between the teeth.” In the poem’s final lines, this sensual attraction blossoms into a fuller commendation of the man’s way of life:
I told him this is a pleasant life
To set your breast to the bark of trees
That all your days are dim beneath,
And reaching up with a little knife,
To loose the resin and take it down
And bring it to market when you please.
Drifting from indirect reported discourse into a second-person address, the conclusion lays stress on the gum-gatherer’s independence and even caprice. Unbound (at least in the speaker’s imagination) from a permanent home or fixed relations, the man’s nomadic existence offers a tantalizing glimpse of a life unfettered by limitations on one’s free will.
The tensions among these poems’ views of the past are brought to a head but remain unresolved in the collection’s final piece, “The Sound of Trees,” a kind of companion-piece to “The Road Not Taken.” The poem’s speaker listens to the sound of wind in the branches, and promises to assert himself and his freedom through departure: “I shall set forth for somewhere, / I shall make the reckless choice / Someday when they are in voice.” Yet despite these bold words, it remains unclear whether the speaker truly can or will make a break with the past, or whether he, like the trees themselves, merely “talks of going / But never gets away.”
Online texts of the poems, including a scanned copy of the 1916 edition, can be found here.