Friday, May 27, 2011

Two Roads

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
Took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost

Something's lost, but something's gained in living every day.
- Joni Mitchell

For some reason, in recent weeks, I've been driven to compare and contrast the above two quotations. They have a certain similarity in meaning, do they not? And yet they are subtly different. The more I reflect, the more I find in favor of Joni Mitchell.

Not stylistically, certainly. For all her colossal talent, the quintessential songstress of a certain moment of California hippie-dom's sparkling sunlight (and dreary underbelly) is no match as a crafter in words to the doughty mender of New Hampshire's walls. But content is a different thing.

Both fragments are about life choices, and the opportunities that are lost, as well as the satisfactions found, in making them. Frost's poem focuses on one big choice, and claims that has made all the difference. There is a certain smug self-satisfaction lurking behind the words. In the body of the poem (before the quoted lines), he plays at regret, but really he is confident that his choice was right (as well as being the one most people would not have made), and he is quite proud of this.

Mitchell's lines, on the other hand, recognize that we make a thousand choices, large and small, every single day of our lives, and every one of them "makes the difference" in the sense that while certain opportunities are opened up, others are irrevocably closed. The lines evoke a certain optimistic fatalism. Unlike in Frost's perception, we are not so much the authors of our decisions as we are the playthings of fortune. We can hardly guess the implications of every little choice, and most of them we may not even be conscious of making. You win a few, you lose a few. There is a keen awareness of the loss, but, on consideration, the gains make up for them, after all.

Both poets have observed something crucial about our lives, and either vision may seem more apt in some particular time and place. But for me, at least, the older I grow, the less I feel like a person who's made one big choice, or even a number of big choices, that consciously structured my life according to some master plan, and the more I feel like the willy nilly plaything of the gods.

Yet some things have been gained, for all that.