Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …

The Road Not Taken, written by Robert Frost in 1915, has always been one of my favorite pieces of poetry. I think I first read it in the 11th grade, around age 15 or 16, and ever since the words have resonated through me. I’ve always seen it as a wonderfully elegant analogy for memory and time, and for the passage of our lives, and I’m fairly certain thats the main point Frost was trying to make. The use of the image of a path through the woods is wonderfully evocative of the way we wander through life, and the choice of one path over another is a simple, elegant way to visualize the decisions we all have to make on our trip from birth to death. I’ve always tried to take the final stanza to heart, and when “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by.”

But I think there may be a larger significance to the imagery in the poem that I’d always missed, until recently. Frost uses the image of a path through the woods to illustrate our passage through life, but I think its equally significant the way he describes the paths we don’t choose. “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 …” He describes both paths as equal possibilities, with equal reality and equal appeal, and even after he decides “Oh, I kept the first for another day” he talks about coming back and how thats not generally possible, because “Yet knowing how way leads on to way … I doubted if I should ever come back.” That has always been a powerful image to me of how we can’t go back to explore the other path, once we’ve decided on a certain way, but lately, I see a little more than.

The image of the yellow wood as a whole has always been somewhat secondary for me to the paths Frost describes through it. But as I think more about the poem, I am seeing it as a very significant image alongside the paths through it. As I read it now, its interesting to note that by using the forest image, Frost is making it clear that the paths we choose are real things, that continue to exist even after we choose differently. Those old choices, the paths not taken, may be forever closed for us to go back and explore, but the yellow wood is still there as a whole, and those paths still exist, waiting to be discovered anew. Our perception, and the way we live our lives means we are forced into an existence where “way leads on to way” and we are forever unable to revisit those decisions to explore the other paths. Thats what Frost is trying to say with the image of the paths, but the yellow wood as a whole shows a much more nuanced view of the temporal terrain we walk through.

Given it was written in 1915 at the height of the new physics revolution, its perhaps not terribly surprising to see quantum ideas creeping in, but I was surprised to find them in a place I hadn’t noticed before. One of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics is that physical systems are governed by mathematical equations called wave forms that describe all possible states of the system. There are many ways to interpret this, but one of the primary interpretations came from the Copenhagen base of Neils Bohr, one of the early giants of quantum mechanics. Known now as the Copenhagen Interpretation, it is described VERY concisely by Steve Gimbel, a philosophy professor from Gettysburg College, in this post on how quantum mechanics might impact an omniscient God. In that post, Steve says of the Copenhagen Interpretation “the wave function is held to be the complete description of the system in the world, in other words, the system is simultaneously in a state comprised of every possible value that observable properties could have.”

Gimbel goes on to describe our perceptual experience of that reality in a different way. “The problem is that we never ever see the world in this superposed state. The instant we look at it, the Schrodinger equation breaks down, the wave function collapses, and the particle ends up in exactly one of its property states, in this case, at one place in space.” In other words, even while Copenhagen holds that the system exists in all states at once, we can never perceive it in that way … instead, once we make the observation, the experience of all other states is lost to us for that time.

This, to me, shows a striking similarity to the way we experience the passage of time, and to Frost’s depiction of it. We experience time as a sequence of moments, moments where we resolve a complex universe into a definite state … we collapse the wave form of the universe, so to speak, through our actions, our thoughts, our very presence, into a specific temporal moment, before moving on to the next. But each one of those moments continues to exist as a waveform for the universe as well, in all its complexity, including the states we can now never observe as “way leads on to way” through the temporal forest. I’d always gotten that part about The Road Not Taken, but what I’d missed was the way the yellow wood as a whole represents that raw waveform of all that we might experience, of the entire temporal map, including those paths to which we can never go back.

I’m going to repost the poem as a whole at the bottom of this post. If you want a concise description of my philosophy of life, much of it is to be found in these 20 lines, and its wonderful that they continue to reveal new things to me as well. Enjoy your walk through the yellow wood …

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost

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.


2 Responses

  1. a classic. one of my favorites as well.

  2. Just last week after pondering a few times on Frost’s poem, I woke up with this nagging interrogation: “How can we still exist in the ‘Road not Taken” even while we experience the one we choose?” Immediately I titled this problematic as “Robert Frost and Quantum Mechanics”. I thought briefly on a few occasions of the possibile implications for a quantum interpretation of the poem, but with no focused attention.This morning the interrogation revisited my mind and despite the strong incentive to stay in my bed I came to my computer and googled “the road not taken and quantum physics” and was pleasantly surprised to find your blog entry. After reading it twice, I have decided to give more attention to the ramifications of the problematic proposed by my interrogation. This necessary pause to reflect in my otherwise busy day would be like “Stopping by Wood on a ‘Sunny’ Evening. I say sunny because im from the sunny Caribbean Islands of St.Vincent and the Grenadines.Continue the conversation.

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