Week 381: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

This is a famous and in my view somewhat misunderstood poem, the misunderstanding being entirely the fault of the poet. Robert Frost liked to put it about that this was a playful poem written to tease his friend Edward Thomas, who was, it seems, given to reflecting ruefully on the choice of path after one of their country walks together and saying now if only they’d gone the other way… In particular the last line, Frost claimed, was an ironic joke at Thomas’s expense and not to be taken literally. Thomas did indeed take the tease seriously and was apparently quite perturbed by the poem, but to me all this was just Frost putting up a smokescreen: clearly the poem is about him and not Thomas, the road less taken is the path of poetry, and there is no reason not to take the last line at face value: our life choices do indeed make a difference. I’m afraid Frost liked to play these games, maybe from a wish to disguise the act of self-revelation, or from a fear of committing himself too deeply to his own truth, or just from a mischievous sense of fun. Which doesn’t make it any less of a fine poem.

The Road Not Taken

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

Week 364: Tell me not here, it needs not saying, by A.E.Housman

I have always felt this week’s offering to be one of the most beautiful of English poems, at least as far as the first four verses go. I could do without the last verse, in which the elegy edges over into self-pity: if you really have to state the obvious about man’s relationship to ‘heartless, witless nature’ then I rather prefer the breezy acceptance of W.H.Auden’s lines: ‘Looking up at the stars I know quite well/That for all they care I can go to hell’. Well, quite. The universe is not about us. Which need not prevent us from finding it an immensely interesting place, and being grateful for the opportunity to observe it for a brief span. 

Tell me not here, it needs not saying

Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.

On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own.

On acres of the seeded grasses
The changing burnish heaves;
Or marshalled under moons of harvest
Stand still all night the sheaves;
Or beeches strip in storms for winter
And stain the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.


Week 92: An Die Entfernte, by Nikolaus Lenau

This lyric by the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) was one of the first German poems I ever got by heart; it seemed to me to have the plangent sweetness of a folksong .

The translation that follows is my own.

An Die Entfernte

Diese Rose pflück ich hier,
In der fremden Ferne;
Liebes Mädchen, dir, ach dir
Brächt ich sie so gerne!

Doch bis ich zu dir mag ziehn
Viele weite Meilen,
Ist die Rose längst dahin,
Denn die Rosen eilen.

Nie soll weiter sich ins Land
Lieb von Liebe wagen,
Als sich blühend in der Hand
Lässt die Rose tragen,

Oder als die Nachtigall
Halme bringt zum Neste,
Oder als ihr süsser Schall
Wandert mit dem Weste.

To One Far Away

See the rose that I pluck here
In foreign land afar –
Oh, could I but bring it, dear,
To you, to where you are.

Yet, before we met, before
I crossed so wide a way,
Long the rose would be no more
For roses do not stay.

Nevermore must love from love
Adventure in the land
Further than a rose may live
Borne blooming in the hand,

Further than the nightingale
Can bring straws to the nest,
Further than its sweet song fill
The wind out of the west.

Week 76: Herbsttag, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Just before I went up to Cambridge for my entrance examinations in 1962, my headmaster took me to one side. He was aware of my admiration for the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and equally aware of my devotion to Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Just a word of advice’ he said. ‘Go with the Rilke. Don’t mention Tolkien!’. I was then as cheerfully ignorant of the OK-ness of writers in academic circles as I am now cheerfully indifferent to it, so I was a little puzzled, but it seemed only polite to talk to other people about things they too were interested in, so I duly obliged. And Rilke really is very good, though I prefer the sensuous, concrete shorter lyrics to the more philosophical ‘Duino Elegies’, just as I prefer Tolkien’s weather and landscapes to his theology (sorry, Cambridge, just had to slip that one in). Here’s one of my favourites. The translation that follows is my own.


Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin, und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The great summer is done.
Let loose the winds upon the meadows, let
Your shadows count the last hours of the sun.

Bid the late fruits to swell upon the vine,
Allow them two more days of southern heat,
Cram the last ripeness into them, complete
Their sweet fulfilment in full-bodied wine.

Who has no house now shall not make a home,
Again; who is alone now long shall be so,
Will sit up, read, will write long letters, go
Along the autumn avenues to roam
Restless, as the leaves drift, to and fro.