Have you read the entire poem, Mr. Keating?

June 3, 2007

Although Liz and I watch only one TV program — House — our lack of cable TV service makes it hard to keep up with that show. Until recently, we relied on my brother-in-law to “TiVo” it, and we’d watch it on evenings when we invited ourselves over for dinner. Then my sister gave me an iTunes gift card for my birthday, which allowed us to reduce the frequency of our “militant yet lazy houseguest” visits by downloading episodes onto our computer.

This past week, we made it through our entire backlog of old episodes. Now what? We decided to sample some earlier work of House cast member Robert Sean Leonard — specifically the movie Dead Poets Society. I really liked it overall, which made me all the more upset that protagonist John Keating (played by Robin Williams) is guilty of one of my pet peeves: quoting the final lines of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as if completely oblivious to the overall meaning of the poem.

Maybe I’m being overprotective of Frost’s words, since I grew up in Vermont, which claims him as one of its own (though New Hampshire and Massachusetts might disagree). But really, if you make a film about an inspiring teacher with a profound understanding of poetry, and if the erudite instructor, in urging his students to find their own voice, offers up a few stirring lines of poetry in support of that notion, is it too much to ask that he recite an excerpt whose sentiment is not completely undercut by the poem from which it comes?

If you are considering using the last two or three lines of “The Road Not Taken” as part of your email signature or home page or yearbook profile or graduation speech, please read and think about the whole poem — all 20 lines, reprinted below — before heading down that particular road.

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.


  1. greg, came up with this conclusion on some website: " [the poem] It does not moralize about choice, it simply says that choice is inevitable but you never know what your choice will mean until you have lived it."seems reasonable, no? Unless you are kidnapped or knocked unconscious…

  2. Dead Poet's Society remains one of my favorite movies, though it's a bit of a guilty pleasure. The movie is arguably smug and manipulative, and Mr. Keating doesn't teach the students to think freely so much as substitute one ideology (basically, that of the Romantics) for another (could you imagine Mr. Keating teaching Eliot?). Still, good to be reminded of a time when Robin Williams was an actor with range (Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King were made around the same time).Agree with you on widespread misunderstanding of the Frost poem. Though not as widespread as the misunderstanding of "Born in the USA" as a flag-waving, patriotic song ("Born down in a dead man's town/First kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/'Til you spend half your life just a -coverin' up")

  3. My husband, who teaches English in high school (and detests the teacher-as-antic-performer image of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society), has trouble persuading students that, since Frost makes clear in the last two lines of stanza 2 and the first two lines of stanza 3 that the paths are equally worn, he can't really take the "less traveled" one. That "with a sigh" and the "I–I" in the final stanza both suggest that Frost foresees his dramatizing and falsifying the story in the future so it becomes one about taking the unconventional road. For those of us who don't like Dead Poets Society (and other phony depictions of what good teaching is), the misinterpretation is at the dead center of what's wrong with such movies.

  4. Roslyn: I'm interested in why you and your husband think the misinterpretation is central to the movie's shortcomings. Is it because this poem and others are treated merely as rhetorical flourishes in Keating's "show" rather than as literature to be scrutinized, analyzed, and discussed?

  5. Yes, it's the showmanship passing as teaching but also the showmanship, in this instance, in the service of "unconventionality." There's nothing wrong with being unconventional or taking the untraveled road–indeed, there's a lot that's right–but it's not what Frost was talking about, for one, and the movie exalts as unconventionality what looks an awful lot like mere histrionic performance.Guess you could say you've touched a nerve! I'll send you a copy of a commencement address Bill gave a few years ago about the (mostly lamentable) depiction of teachers in movies. It's not that we're humorless. I've been hanging around with Crowthers too long not to have my humor creds pretty firmly in place.P.S. He liked Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

  6. >P.S. He liked Fast Times at Ridgemont High.Well, there's some street cred right there.

  7. But was Frost being deliberatley post-modernly ambiguous – because ambiguity is part of life, and did he want his readership to ponder the issue…?Should "Ambiguity" be taught and learned about…? Did he achieve his goal? The commercial nature of films often calls for the taking of interpreted sides. Learning about ambiguity can help to make up your mind. Taking the road less travelled has made all the difference. The difference from what? The difference between what? What is different about choices when we don't know their outcomes? The ambiguity of their similiar "grassy" divergence in the (?) "yellow wood", as it appears to "the" walker… "then took the other JUST as fair…" How does he know it is JUST AS fair?They are the same road.If they were different, he would have gone up one a little bit, than walked more or less across and carved a path to reach the other one, and fulfill his need not to be "sorry to travel both." There's only one road…

  8. Roslyn: Excellent points, although I think the movie hints at a distinction between unconventionality and histrionics when Keating reprimands Charlie (a.k.a. Nwanda) for interrupting a school assembly with the "phone call from God" prank. As for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, well, to each his own. I found Mr. Hand mildly amusing, but he did not convey any passion for his subject matter, antagonized and embarrassed his students (e.g., by announcing their low quiz grades individually), blamed the students (rather than taking any personal responsibility) when they failed to learn, and generally seemed more interested in exerting his authority than in facilitating the learning process.Corrado: The roads may look the same, but they almost certainly lead to different destinations. That, I think, is one of the poem's main points: we sometimes have to choose between A and B without any rational basis for doing so, yet these arbitrary choices profoundly affect our lives' trajectories.

  9. When you say "to each his own" do you mean that good fences make good neighbors? :)[sorry – couldn't help it – not misquoted as often but that one's a pet peeve of mine]My wife gets annoyed when I parse movies too closely, but I really can't get into them if they set up a character one way (ruthless killer; or fantastic teacher) and then don't follow through with it (pities the girl; or uses poetry superficially). Anyway: interesting discussion!

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