Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

September 25, 2019
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.

I mentioned this poem briefly in a post about life choices last year, and something recently recalled it to my mind again.

Why is the wood yellow? Is it a mature wood, it is autumn there, and if so, why? I really don’t know. Both paths seem equally appealing to our curious walker who looks as far as he can see down the first. But there is a corner, beyond which the path and future are unseen. I’ve often found myself on a path in a wood, knowing that at some time I will need to turn around and return the same way; looking ahead I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll just walk as far as that turning’ and then come back. In life, that’s not an option anyone has…

The speaker takes the other path on the grounds that it looks brighter and less-used, whilst admitting that there’s really not all that much in it. There is a jauntiness, a casualness in the decision – he’ll come back another day and follow the other track, again whilst admitting to himself there’s not really much chance of that happening.

Is there a sigh of regret in the final stanza? After so much time has passed he will remember that moment of choice, a brief hesitation marked by the repetition of ‘I’ at the end and beginning of lines. And it made all the difference: what difference is he actually talking about? He doesn’t, can’t know…

It is a deceptively simple poem, because the tone – casual, offhand even – mirrors the way we take a lot of the decisions we make in our lives: this or that course, this or that job, journey and so on. And we have to: to agonise too much is to paralyse ourselves and in the end we have to leap and act. Only as we grow older, perhaps, like the speaker or the poet, do we pause, look back and reflect on the significance of choices which actually did shape of change our lives. Is that what he means by ‘all the difference’? For the choices we make shape the person we become, and if we are content, then we approve and validate the choices we made, as the poet does.

The language is simple – no difficult words in the poem – the sentences quite long and involved, nevertheless, for the poet wants to create a thoughtful and reflective mood, and such sentences mirror the slow thought-processes as he recalls and evaluates his choices and how they shaped his existence. The first sentence is twelve lines! Then a single exclamatory line, another short sentence and then the final sentence is the last stanza, summing up his complex train of thought.

For me, it is a wonderful poem, one that I suspect will last a long time in anthologies and possibly become the poem Frost is ultimately remembered for, for its deceptively easy profundity and lasting effect, and the way it surely speaks to most of us and our condition. Existential, perhaps, but without the angst…

French Literature – an eye-opener

September 17, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of the course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency with the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centrism, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Reading and enjoying French literature

August 31, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of my course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency in the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations and their influences on each other, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centredness, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Turgenev: Fathers & Sons

November 17, 2013

I’ve been re-reading this ready for the next meeting of a Russian literature group to which I belong. I have read quite widely (I think) in Russian literature; it’s very different, often obscure and challenging, and always an insight into another society and culture far removed from our own. Sometimes I gain insights into my own past family history, too.

It’s remarkable how different nineteenth century Russian novels and novelists were from the English ones we read today: no Jane Austens, Brontes, Eliots, and the themes wide in scope, philosophical, with an awareness, it seems, on the part of many writers that things could not go on much longer as they were, that major societal upheaval was on the cards, and this a couple of generations before the 1917 revolutions.

We see the generations of Russian aristocrats and peasants trapped in their traditional roles and behaviours, or trying to be a little bit different and usually failing, and the nihilist Bazarov is a breath of fresh air against this background. However, he reminded me, in his behaviour and approach, of the twentieth century existentialists, who also did not seem to be offering a terribly attractive alternative way of living one’s life, and who have also faded into obscurity. I like Bazarov: he’s a fore-runner of a different way of being, and at least really struggling with the contradictions of his times and himself.

The subtle interplay of the generations (see the title of the novel) is well done; Turgenev draws the reader to see the similarities and differences between them, and perhaps reflect on this interplay in her/his own life, what things change and which remain the same, passed unconsciously down through time. Class differences, too, are revealed – Bazarov’s origins are very different from his friend’s…

And I’m left with the question (often the same one at the end of many Russian novels) ‘what is this writer saying, in the end?’ Are we prisoners of our pasts, doomed to repeat usque ad infinitum, or can there be another way?

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