The Epicurean Tradition and Robert Frost: Decisions, Paths, Digressions

The great Epicurean tradition in poetry from Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, and the revival during the Italian Renaissance onward to the English John Dryden to the Romantics Shelley in England and Leopardi in Italy up to my own roots in Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, A.R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Amy Clampitt, James Merrill, Henri Cole and so many more… flows in my veins. What I seek is to attenuate and through careful study and understanding weave the threads of a naturalist vision in life, science, and philosophy through poetry to enliven a new generation of Lucretians. As much as I love philosophy I am of the tribe of poets and rhetoricians and seek to speak to that which is old and needful in the poverty of our age, to bring back a careful knowledge of the long history of science from its early cultural formations to now. A tale not of natural history alone, but of the humans that first awakened to the majesty of life through seeing into the nature of things.

Robert Frost spoke of the difference that makes all the difference in The Road Not Taken, may we all take the less traveled roads of life and being:

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.

– Robert Frost

In the above Frost is conveying that movement in his own life of tradition and his own individual place in that tradition. Frost was able to externalize his thoughts and feelings, to impersonalize himself while making the poems personal. In this one much like Dante before him he is taking a walk in a wood “yellow wood” when he comes to a fork in the road. He’s presented a problem as in a philosophical need to make a decision. But what decision will he make? Which path should he follow? We all have this happen everyday of our lives. We all make both easy and difficult decisions based on circumstance, knowledge, and the vagaries of the moment. Do we ever give much thought to these decisions? Do we sit back and contemplate them like a poem? Obviously the poem above was written later on after the event or memory, and became a triggering event of object that allowed meaning to emerge for Frost in connection to many thoughts and anxieties, decisions he’d made in his life up to that point.

Poetry such as this is both meditative and qualitative, it allows us to grasp the inner workings of the mind in an impersonal way, through the conveyance and digressions of the poet’s ambling notations. Like good wine or music we follow his mind down these backwoods roads as if we, too, were ambling with him. In a sense we are, we’re all voyeurs at heart, loving to look on others in their lives as they go about their daily routines. We might sit in a park and watch mothers talk while their children play, or go downtown and sit in a small coffee house and watch the traffic go by or people surging on the sidewalk; the way that walk, talk, dress, etc. thinking about what it is that might be on their minds. Their love lives or their busy business lives, etc. We form pictures and images, then give them words and voices, we begin creating these little scenarios and stories in our mind that suddenly take on a life of their own without us. Sometimes these can run along obsessively gathering forms and words out of time, little statements from great princes or Cesar’s,  or dead poets, or writer’s from literature, philosophy, history; even the mythography’s and tantalizing cultural references from myriad eras begin roaming our minds and connecting to these stories. Soon we get the urge to set all these ideas and images down on paper. To get them out of our system, to be free of their overwhelming force. And, that’s it: its as if there was something in us, a force or desire that we could no longer contain, that wants to be rid of us, to go off into the world on its own without us. As if it felt itself to be caged in, imprisoned in our mind and was seeking like some panther raging in a cage to be out, back in the wilderness of time.

It’s at this point we find Frost contemplating which path he’ll take, and it’s difficult for him because time, memory, and physical traces have “worn them really about the same”. And, specifically he makes a point to tell us that on this unique occasion “…both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” One wonders why the concreteness of the slice of time? Why the need to inform us that on this specific occasion his mind registered the truth of the paths inexplicable or even obscure physical obviousness that both lay equally in disrepair, enfolded and overgrown by leaves that know one, at least for this morning, had trodden? At this point we have to consider the possibility of meaning. Just what is Frost getting at, in what sense is he conveying a meaning or intent; or, is he, maybe he’s just reporting a fact, a literal reading of the physical scene and leaving it at that, no longer concerned with its meaning any more than he might be about the course of the sun through the sky. So as a reader we are ourselves left at a fork in the road wondering which path we, too, must take; will we just take the easy route, the one most literalists would take and figure he was intending no meaning beyond the words themselves and their reporting of the scene; or, will we see in these words something else, something in excess of the words themselves, something that is pointing to meanings that no longer reside in the literal sense of the words, but instead convey meanings beyond the words, transcendent meanings that hover around the words and bring about meanings not realized in the words themselves?

In those next three lines he gives us a pointer:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

We discover that he’s never gone down either trail, and that he might come back some day and take that path as well; then he realizes that as life goes, we usually cannot return as we’d planned, that for better or worse life makes its own plans and we are typically unable to return. What’s interesting in this acknowledgement is that it is a matter of the mind, a figure of thought rather than speech in which it is a “knowing” rather than a “seeing” just here. Knowing his own past, his history and behavior he realizes that he’ll more than likely never return to this exact location. The truth here might be both literal and excessive. Again we are left with a dilemma: is it one or the other? If we take the second more difficult route then we enter that world of Lucretian poetry. I speak of the notion of a swerve in meaning or as Harold Bloom once defined it after the rhetoricians, clinamen:

Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a “swerve” of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves. (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence)

If we take Bloom’s notion of a swerve against tradition seriously then what we’re seeing in Frost is this sense of anxiety felt within the poet’s mind about his decision, about having opted for a more untrodden path or even a counter-tradition, one that went against the grain of Emersonian and Whitmanian notions of the transcendental; for it is Emerson and Whitman more than any others that stand for Frost as tradition in America. So what we are hearing is that for Frost both the Emersonian and its counter quarrels in such writer’s as Herman Melville in Moby Dick and others that Frost had read and been influenced by that he would have to decide which path he was going to take, whether to join forces with Emersonian Transcendentalism or not. He chose not, he chose a darker turn and one less traveled by those following in Emerson’s footsteps. Yet, it wasn’t as easy as that, no, instead for Frost it would be a slight swerve and clinamen, a re-sighting of the tradition of Emerson rather than an outright disavowal; for, it truth be told, Frost was still very much a child of Emerson, just a bastard child rather than a full fledged son like Walt Whitman. Frost was a cantankerous and difficult poet and man to get along with, being a New Englander he was subtle even as his poetry conveyed ease and surface pleasures that anyone could read. He knew very well that his poetry could be read literally or figuratively, and that suited him just fine; in fact, that was the point, he didn’t want his meanings to fall into just any old hands, no, he wanted people to work as hard as those farmers and planters in the far north of that cold land had too, he wanted people to have to dig down real deep and discover the treasures and gold nuggets of his meaning in the black loam of his poetry. In this sense his poetry is more difficult than such poets as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound who on surface are very difficult. Frost unlike these modernists was a gnomic poet, hermetic and disquieting, almost oracle like in his intent and purpose conveying meanings as if from some deep cave of mind from which only those who are willing to pay the price can enter and gain access to his wisdom. So even those who read him for the literal charms will get certain easy pleasures, others will on reading and rereading, living with his poetry, digressing and allowing it to cross over into their own minds and channel the cultural tunings and antagonistic or even curmudgeon meanings will gain insights into their own lives and of the earth.

It’s in that final stanza that we get a sense both of relief and of regret or acknowledgement that the choices that Frost has lived with these many years were made long ago for good or ill in that day both figuratively and literally:

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.

In that “sigh” is a weight of time and memory, a sort of emotive core of regret that tells us that yes he’d made his choice and he was willing to own up to it, to accept it with both trepidation and a sense of guilt, as if he just might regret it at some future point “ages and ages hence”. Yet, he also realizes that this swerve this slight divergence in his life also “made all the difference” in his life that he’d ever need. In this we sense triumph, the knowledge – and it is a sense of gnosis, of an inner knowing in the mind – that has been for Frost the difference that made a difference. We could say the same. The poem is that difference and a challenge to us as well. We stand at that crossroads between two traditions, and Frost is saying: “You, too must decide which path.” He doesn’t make that choice for you, he expects you, like he, will make your own mind up and be as diffident and difficult about it as he is. Beyond that is the poetry…

2 thoughts on “The Epicurean Tradition and Robert Frost: Decisions, Paths, Digressions

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