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Robert Frost

David Cowles

Jan 15, 2024

“Anyone can go for a walk in the woods; only Frost can ‘walk this way’.”
Ask any English teacher. The Road Not Taken is a perennial favorite, especially among young readers, who often understand it as an anthem of non-conformity and adventure - Jack Kerouac in verse. But is this really what the poem is about?"

The Poem:

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, 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 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 travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

It’s all about me:

Recently, a new friend invited me to tell him my “life’s story” and, of course, I was more than eager to oblige. As I told my tale, I felt as if I were a character in My Dinner with Andre, but when I later left the restaurant, I realized that the man I had described to my friend was a mash-up of St. Augustine and Che Guevara. (Are we all just mash-ups of our heroes?)

Not that anything I told my friend was untrue. It was just that every story had been edited to emphasize the creative and the courageous at the expense of the bumbling and the befuddled. “It’s my story; I’ll tell it the way I want!”

Apparently, the extruded lives we think we live are more like braided twine. What passes for ‘a life’ is actually many lives woven together. For the most part, these different lives happily coexist and even cross-pollinate…until we are forced to reduce them to a linear narrative. To narrate is to select and to order. 

Of course, there is a parallel here to Quantum Mechanics (QM). (Isn’t there always?) According to most interpretations of QM, the state of a physical system is uncertain until it is observed or measured. That way, Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead…until Little Tommy Thin cruelly opens the box.

(Observation: As long as the box remains closed, pus is still alive. Therefore, there is a world in which pus is immortal, if not eternal. Time, then, can only be a nesting of ‘decoherent’ Russian dolls embedded in a still ‘coherent’ whole.) 

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Until I am asked to tell my life story, I am many different people to myself and a different person to each person I encounter. Taken together, ‘I’ am actually > 1 person. But when I narrate, I select the events I wish to include and the colors I wish them to display. The ‘narrated me’ can only be one person, and, because narrative is necessarily selective, ‘the narrated me’ (ok, say it, “just like the actual you”) is always a few cents short of a dime (i.e., < 1 person).  

While we narrate effortlessly and almost unconsciously every minute of every day, the process is deceptively difficult. One must first break down our undifferentiated stream of consciousness so that it discloses discrete events, then clothe each event with an appropriate subjective form (‘feeling’), and finally link these events together so that what emerges has the degree of unity one needs if one is to be regarded as a ‘person’…and not locked up.

Autobiography is the most difficult form of writing, and, in my opinion at least, it is rarely successful. Usually, what passes for autobiography is more travelog or history than biography. A narrative is not so much a succession of events with a variety of aspects as it is one single event fusing innumerable overlapping aspects into one overarching aspect. 

Narrative is teleology: the tail wags the dog. ‘And they lived happily ever after (or not)’ is already embedded in ‘once upon a time’. In narrative, I am now and always have been what I will someday become. Really? Wow! Nothing could be more alien from real-life experience!

Narrative is holography: it creates a 3-dimensional display. But in reality, all the information in that 3-D display is stored non-locally on a piece of 2-D film. To be clear: All the information present over the entire 3-D hologram (the narrative) is present everywhere on the film. As a newborn babe lying helplessly in my crib, I was already the ‘fierce warrior’ I later became (in my mind), and that ‘warrior’ was already the drooling old husk I am now. Again with the nesting dolls!


When my friend asked for the story of my life, there were many different versions I might have shared. There’s the ‘always anxious, socially awkward’ version. Then there are the ‘calculating, manipulative sociopath’ and the ‘hardworking family man’ versions. But of course, without thinking, I chose the ‘creative intellectual and courageous revolutionary’ version. After all, it was the version best calculated to entertain. So what if it happened to paint me in my most preferred colors? Everyone likes a good swashbuckler, and I can write one as well as the next guy! (Well, actually, I can’t…but saying so wouldn’t read well.)

The version of myself I decided to share with my friend is the one that best reflects the values that I wish governed my life and that I wish to ‘superject’ into your world. When I tell my story, I naturally invest that story with those values. Had I different values, I would tell a different story. But would I live a different life?

Back to Mr. Frost:

It is clear from the text of the poem that Frost adopted the values of non-conformity and adventure. What makes The Road Not Taken such an existential triumph, however, is that in this poem, Frost admits that these values are adopted and that it is just such adopted values that provide the subjective form of his life and that constitute his persona.

In other words, in classic existentialist style, ‘we each choose the person we are to be’. 

Frost images himself a taker of roads less traveled; it’s a crucial piece of his identity, i.e., who he is to himself. But the text itself tells a very different story. There is no road less traveled: “…The passing there had worn them both about the same, and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” 

Frost recognizes that, objectively speaking, there is no difference between these roads; still, subjectively, it is important for him to seem to be choosing the less popular option. Like me (above), Frost knows he’ll have to tell this story years later, and he wants his story to reflect his adopted values, if not his lived life.

Perhaps Frost means to go even further. Perhaps he is suggesting that all of life’s potential paths lie equally before us. And why not? Each of us can only take one sequence of ways, and none of us will ever have traveled any of those ways before, so aren’t all paths the same to us? 

Nor are we likely to revisit any of those paths. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted I should ever come back.” Therefore, in a certain sense, the paths before us must always lie equally; we have no idea ‘what’s down the road a piece’. We can’t reliably tell a book by its cover. All paths are just pure potentiality…until we actuate one of them.

But what if it turns out that the roads are not evenly worn after all? What if Frost was right in the first place? What if he is now saying that at the core, it just doesn’t matter. Whether the path is a federal superhighway or a virgin trail hacking its way through the Amazon makes no difference. A road is a road is a road. We only know three things about these roads: (1) they diverge from one another at a fork; (2) they converge again at a common destination; and (3) we have no idea, really, what we will encounter along the way on any road we choose. On one road, ‘there be dragons’…but we have no idea on which road.  

The Universe is a Melon:

You’ve been told that life is a ripe banana. Of course, it’s not, obviously; it’s a melon! It’s a sphere whose surface is made up of an infinite number of ‘points’, any oppositely situated pair of which may serve as two singularities. Wherever you find yourself on the surface of the world-melon, you’re at Singularity A. Take a step. It doesn’t matter what direction you step in; all steps are the same. They all go in the same direction. All steps take you one step closer to Singularity B. 

Now you might object, “Clearly, this is wrong. I can go in any direction. I have a whole 360° to choose from.” That’s true; you can go in any direction, but every direction is the same direction. No matter how many different ‘directions’ you try, you’ll always end up exactly one step closer to Singularity B. These so-called directions only appear as such when viewed by another from an external vantage. 

According to Heidegger, we are just ‘thrown’ helter-skelter into the world; so we all land on a spot, and that spot, for each of us, is our own, personal Singularity A.  From there, we begin our journey, but we all begin that journey by taking the same first step. 

Now take Step Two. You are the only entity in the entire history of the cosmos who will ever take that step. Every step two is different and distinct. The existentialist number system consists of just three elements: 0, 1, and ∞. Surprisingly, there are a number of pre-literate societies that have truncated number systems similar to this one.

After your first step, you are still ‘no one’ and therefore you are still ‘everyone’; after your second step, you are ‘yourself alone’ and therefore unique. Everyone’s first step is the same as everyone else’s; after that, no two steps are ever the same again…with one exception.  

With the second step you begin a random walk. Well, not quite random, but there is one rule: every step must bring you closer to Singularity B. You can’t go home again! There are no second chances, do-overs, or Mulligans. There’s a hidden cosmic censor that protects against homesickness. Any soldier caught running away from battle will be shot on sight. You might recognize that censor either as Father Time, or what amounts to the same thing, Entropy.    


All random walks take us in the direction of Singularity B. So all roads lead from Rome (Singularity A), and all roads lead to Rome (Singularity B). (Note: A & B are indistinguishable; one person’s A could be another person’s B. Same origin, same destination, but what “made all the difference” was whatever happened along the way: that’s ‘the mythology of being me’ (or being Robert Frost).

Or a Pinball Machine:

If melon is too ‘sylvan and bucolic’ for you, how about an old-time pinball machine, lonesome now in the corner of some busy modern electro-arcade? Is that more your style? No problem. All balls come out of the same gun (Singularity A, Rome) and all balls will ultimately end up in the same hole (Singularity B, Rome), from which they will be recycled (Singularity A, again). Rinse and repeat.  

What happens between that origin and that destiny is ‘agency’ (your skill as a player) undermined by chaos (gravity) or chaos (the bumpers) mitigated by your agency…it’s a bit like real life, wouldn’t you say?

In this model, backtracking is allowed, in fact, it’s essential—but the cosmic fabric is still protected, this time by the angle of the surface area, aka gravity - Father Time, again. You still can’t go home! All your life you’ve dined on melon (posh) or played pinball (less posh) but you never knew until today that doing either makes you a Master of the Universe

Freud vs. Sartre:

The psychology movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries presented us with a different and perhaps more comforting model. According to this view, our decisions are conditioned, or even determined, by our prior experiences. In some sense, then, we are not responsible for those decisions; they are determined for us. My parents are to blame for all my bad decisions—writing this article, for example, not me. “The sins of the parents” and all that. 

This notion resurfaced in the latter half of the 20th century as Postmodernism. We do not act: our race, gender, and class act through us. 

20th century Existentialism posed a radical challenge to both these ‘devil made me do it’ ideologies: No decisions are ever determined or conditioned or even influenced. If they were, they wouldn’t be decisions at all, would they? A ‘decision’, from the Latin for ‘to cut’, must be a totally free act, and responsibility for that act rests solely with the one who makes the decision. (Hint: that’s not your parents!)

If we choose and then tell ourselves that there were reasons, or even causes, for our choices, we avoid responsibility for those choices; that’s what an existentialist would call ‘bad faith’. But if decisions are never determined or conditioned, are they just random? If so, if each choice is randomly made and unrelated to any other choices, have we not drifted into ethical nihilism?

Robert Frost avoids bad faith by admitting that the paths “equally lay”. But he also avoids nihilism by linking his decisions, retrospectively, into a narrative that is framed by his values, i.e., the values he has freely chosen to adopt in structuring that narrative. What ultimately gives meaning to Frost’s life is not the choices he makes, but the narrative that connects those choices. ‘Frost’ is not really the sequence of decisions he makes; ‘Frost’ is the narrative he creates to situate those decisions. 


Frost’s ‘superject’, the footprint he impresses on the world, is the ‘subjective form’ of his life narrative, turned inside out. And that ‘subjective form’, of course, consists entirely of the values Frost adopted. Anyone can go for a walk in the woods; only Frost can ‘walk this way’.  

‘Frost’ is like a switching station; he adopts values from his ‘actual world’ and he projects those same values into the actual worlds of others. ‘Frost’ is like a virus; he ‘infects’ concrete events (parent cells) with his values (genes), thereby ensuring that those values will pass on into the actual worlds of future events (daughter cells).

Perhaps Frost is an icon of non-conformity and adventure after all, not because of anything he did per se, but because of the values he projected via his life’s narrative. The actual events of Frost’s life are like a painter’s canvas (blank); the values Frost assigns to that life are akin to the painter’s choice of colors (palette); Frost’s narrative is akin to the painting’s image, in his case, the image of an adventurer.

Does any of this have relevance beyond the world of literary criticism? According to the ontology of Alfred North Whitehead, God’s primordial contribution to the world is a set of proposed values. All subsequent ‘actual entities’ arise in response to those values. Therefore, all actual entities embody God’s values, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and with different subjective forms.

As we said above, these freely adopted values become the subjective form of Frost’s narrative, and that narrative in turn becomes Frost’s superject, his footprint. Therefore, God’s primordial values are incessantly broadcast throughout the universe by each and every event in its turn. To be is to be Good and to be ‘good’ is to project Value.  

God’s ultimate (or ‘consequent’) contribution to the world is the harmonization of each and every unique narrative into a single narrative for Universe. That narrative has God’s primordial values as its unadulterated subjective form and footprint. This is where the theological notion of judgment comes into play. Just as I must pare down my many selves to one self (narrative), so God must pare down our many universes to one Universe. 

God’s canvas is indefinitely broad, and his palette is indefinitely varied. His image will be as inclusive as possible. But realistically, certain parts of certain narratives probably won’t make it into the ‘final edition’. This is the solution to the problem of evil: it will be left on the cutting room floor.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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