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Poems Misinterpreted: Author’s Intent and Poetic Fatalism

“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 travelled by

And that has made all the difference”

And that has made all the difference

‘The Road Not Taken’ lived in the sorest spot of her heart.

What was an upper-middle-class, average IQ science student to do if not sacrifice her soul for a seat in an engineering college? The answer was simple: she was to break up with science and have hush-hush relations with literature and art. She was to take ‘the road less travelled by.’ She was to choose her happiness. And that will make all the difference.

And then it did. Recession consumed the country like a pestilence and the only paid jobs available were for the nurses and doctors (not engineers, not poets). Starvation hit the family of our literary laureate. Happiness was nowhere to be found. Her choice had made absolutely no difference.

If only she had not invested hopes in the last five lines of Frost’s most popular poem. If only she had just not misinterpreted the message. The real message being: single choices seldom have an effect on the future. There was a lot of disappointment to be saved.

We as humans have a habit of thinking wishfully. We think that beautiful things can seldom bring bad news. Poets have since taken advantage of this weakness and fooled us with their cheerful rhymes- hiding behind their words the darkest insecurities of their minds. Let’s look at three of the most misinterpreted poems of all times-

1. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Often known as the ‘most misinterpreted poem in America,’ the Road Not Taken is a poem that appears completely different from what it is. Frost’s narrator is unreliable as he first describes the two roads diverging in the woods as being exactly the same.

The choice he makes is random and not deliberate. He does not make a choice at all. But he wants to tell people with a sigh, ages, and ages hence, that his current state is because he took that one road.

He tells this with a sigh- because he will either be justifying his success by saying that he made the right choice or disown his failure by saying that he made only one little mistake that wrecked him.

2. Daffodils by William Wordsworth

The waves beside them danced, but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

A poem that boasted about the love for nature. A poem about yellow flowers swaying across a river smashed in glee. A poem that painted the most breath-taking imagery is about nothing but loneliness. ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ says the narrator as he fixates on a host of daffodils to have a semblance of joy.

The saddest part is that his loneliness is not momentary but chronic. Because he lies on his couch often in ‘vacant or in a pensive mood.’ And every time, all he can do to pull himself out of the gloom is the non-sentient daffodils that once made him happy.

3. Ring A Ring o’ Roses or Ring Around the Roses

Yes, the inconsequential, pretty little nursery rhyme that pre-school children still sing during playtime. The poem is not about rose gardens or a little girl named Rosie. Many critics including James Fitzgerald believe that the rhyme actually rose during the Great Plague and referred to the Black Death. The ring around the roses signified the round red rashes that were symptoms of the plague. And the final phrase ‘we all fall down’ meant nothing but death.

The Placebo Effect of Poetic Misinterpretation

As harmful as misinterpretation is, it carefully captures the essence of human addiction to personal agency. If misinterpretation were a businessman, we would have an industry called- hope. Misinterpretation is nothing but a reflection of impatience, and our need to see our own opinions reflected in literature.

It serves as a placebo for the dose of validation that we don’t get from the real world. At the end of the day, mass misinterpretation of pain-infested words does more good than harm. In the business of hope supplement, everyone gets some.

Author’s Intent and Poetic Fatalism

But the ‘author problem’ still persists for readers and scholars. Is it fair to the author who dedicated his life and time in conceiving a masterpiece to have his work taken out of context of his own life?

An argument can be made that the art is bigger than the artist and should exist beyond the artist’s intention. But shouldn’t then the credit system and copyright be completely discredited? There is a reason why we don’t copyright interpretations.

Because at the end of the day, the true meaning of a piece can only be truly understood when the author’s intent, life, and context is taken into account. Yes, a poem can still hold meaning without these. But then it is only just distilled water pretending to be a life-saving drug. It’s a placebo. It can have the desired effect- but it’s just not the real thing.


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