Culture Magazine

Alignment in “The Road Not Taken”

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
One of the things that interests me about poetry is alignment, or, perhaps more accurately, (deliberate) misalignment. Thus, while Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” consists of four stanzas of equal length, sentence-end punctuation doesn’t align with stanza divisions. To be sure, the poem does consist of four sentences, but the first one includes the first two stanzas plus the first two lines of the third. The third line of the third stanza is the second sentence, while the last two lines of that stanza constitute the third sentence. The fourth stanza is a sentence unto itself.
This sentence division is not a necessary consequence of the conventions of English punctuation. It is precisely because those conventions are flexible that Frost could have one sentence encompass two stanzas and two lines without raising any hackles. But he could have punctuated the poem differently. It seems to me, for example, that the following would have been a more ‘natural’ way to punctuate those first two stanzas (for reference, see original punctuation below):
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. 

I put periods at the ends of both stanzas and divided each into two sentences in a ‘natural’ way: Divide the first stanza into two sentences by putting a period after “traveler”. Divide the second in two by putting a period after “wear” at the end of the third line.
The question then arises, why did Frost divide the poem into sentences the way he did? I’m guessing that we don’t really know, nor did he, at least not consciously. I’m not familiar with Frost scholarship, but nothing I’ve read about this poem in the last couple of days says anything that speaks to the issue beyond noting that the final stanza is the first one he wrote. So, it was conceived as a coherent unit and the rest of the poem was crafted to match.
However Frost went about the rest of the poem, I assume, by default, that his punctuation decisions were mostly intuitive. He stretched that first sentence over two-plus stanzas because it felt right. What was triggering that feeling?
But that’s not the only misalignment, sentences and stanzas. I’ve also argued that the poem exhibits ring-form, that it is symmetrical about the center. The following illustration shows the three structural principles at work:
Frost Road 5
The arrangement of words displays stanza division. I’ve indicated the units of ring-form structure in shades of gray on the left and the units of sentence structure in shades of teal (sorta’) on the right.
If it’s rhyme and meter that divide the poem into stanzas, what accounts for the other divisions? Whatever it is, it’s not a unified self. A unified self, whatever that is, wouldn’t do that sort of thing. Or, if it did, it would have explicit conscious reasons for so doing – though it might not share those reasons with all and sundry.
In the brain, we know, language isn’t handled by one ‘module’. It’s regulated by several over-lapping modules. As is music. And naturally enough there’s overlap between the modules for language and music. Poetry, no doubt, emerges in the overlap.
If I had to guess – I don’t have to, but I will – I’d guess that the symmetry of ring-form comes from some place else. That is, it’s not part of the standard circuitry for either music or language, but it can structure material that is expressed in language, or music, or in their conjunction in poetry.
Whatever it is that’s generating ring-form, what’s holding the poem together? I’m pretty sure it’s not some cerebral executive because, to be blunt, I don’t believe such a creature exists. I don’t care how often how many neuroscientists proclaim the prefrontal lobes to be a cerebral executive; I believe that’s an ideologically-charged mis-interpretation. There is no top to the system. The brain is anarchic.
There’s some kind of cross-balancing, mutual back-and-forth, between neurofunctional areas: right brain, left brain, front-brain, rear-brain, cortex, limbic, and core brain – they all get a piece of the action. And when things begin to settle down, it feels good. Intuition says, “we’re done”.
And it’s complete.
Of course, I’m just saying this. But I’ve got reasons. I could argue it out, some of it at least. But I can’t imagine a definitive argument at this point. We don’t know enough.
Someday, however, we will. And we’ll get that knowledge because somehow someone has convinced the neuroscientific community to investigate the brain during poetry. Then we’ll find out whether there’s a little CEO there in the frontal lobes directing the whole show, or whether the orchestra is just playing itself, no conductor necessary.
Full Text, original punctuation
1     Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
2     And sorry I could not travel both
3     And be one traveler, long I stood
4     And looked down one as far as I could
5     To where it bent in the undergrowth;

6     Then took the other, as just as fair,
7     And having perhaps the better claim,
8     Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
9     Though as for that the passing there
10    Had worn them really about the same,

11    And both that morning equally lay
12    In leaves no step had trodden black.
13    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
14    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
15    I doubted if I should ever come back.

16    I shall be telling this with a sigh
17    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
18    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
19    I took the one less traveled by,
20    And that has made all the difference.

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