Through the Looking Glass #2: To Thine Ownself Be True.

An investigation of the irony surrounding the most popular poems.

If you were to ask most people for an inspirational piece of poetry some would look to none other than Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. After all, the poem’s speaker exclaims he took the road less traveled, and this halloo for diversity certainly rings through the minds of its many readers. And why not? Most people are always worried about how they will make their mark on the world and giving them a poem about being different than the herd is something that connects with them. However, this poem has less to do with being different than it has to do with feeling regret. A pang of ironic regret, if you will. Many pieces of poetry are subjected to irony in text and out of text, having readers misunderstand their intentions without further investigation of its context. Yet, what exactly does this mean? Why are these poems being used to exemplify diversity and pride when the text clearly states the opposite? I will be investigating two “poems” if you will, one being the aforementioned “The Road Not Taken” and a monologue from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

Let’s continue the dive into Frost. The poems denouement reveals that: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. 

(ln 18-20)

The parallel of the beginning stanza creates a tone of diversity. It goes on to lay beautiful imagery of the wood and the two roads yet taking favor over one of them, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ … 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;” (ln 1-8). One road is “grassy” and “wanted wear”, enticing the speaker to travel this road rather than the one most traversed on. Yet we notice the speaker begins to mention “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,” revealing as they moved on, the wear on both roads ceased to be different and became analogous. The speaker then reaffirms his return to check out the other road yet never does, retelling his story with a “sigh” that “two roads diverged….” and the rest is history.

This poem has become an unspoken anthem of diversity, striking inspiration for those who feel wrong for being different, claimed by people feeling left out. However, any diversity in this poem is almost broken instantly as the speaker goes on to describe the actual walk up the road. Still, the speaker goes on to say he will tell the story of the road less traveled, and why? Many individuals find solace in not being a cog of a well-oiled machine. The teens and young adults who read this poem are mostly reading it in their English high school course, one or two years away from applying to college feeling the stresses that come with higher education. Some are the first to apply in their entire families and were told constantly they would never make it by peers. Some are part of generations worth of college graduates and don’t feel the urgency to spend money to go to school. Some times in a person’s weakest moment, they find something that connects and they take the poem from its surface value. It’s also worth mentioning that some early education teachers use this poem to teach young kids about being different and going their own way. I guarantee the common interpretation is not from poor or lazy research and reading, but from human connection and sometimes a desire to be unique. 

Another poem, or rather monologue, written by William Shakespeare is just as, if not more quoted and misinterpreted than Frost’s iconic verse. In Hamlet, Polonius offers impeccable fatherly advice to his son Laertes, who has requested to move back to France. After the string of good-hearted advice, Polonius ends with the widely known… “to thine own self be true.” (1.3.84). The axiom is simple yet effective, analogous to Frost’s in a sense. It empowers the reader to check their sense of self, even becoming a through-line of their philosophy, and just like Frost’s famous line, the context of the entire text becomes less significant while the thesis, in this case, the one line “to thine own self be true,” is cemented, spackled, and engraved into our morale. Not only is the “message” of the line dominant to the entirety of the text but it sounds pretty too, and on purpose. The purposeful iambs falling on the lines that could easily swap the person of interest with the reader, “to THINE own SELF, be TRUE,” “i TOOK the ONE less TRAVeled BY” sits and settles within the reader and can be easily recalled when needed. 

This particular poem sounds straightforward, a father is giving his son advice and requests that his son stays true to himself above all else. Just like in “The Road Not Taken,” the context ultimately becomes the downfall of any entitled praise or message. The entirety of the passage involves, as mentioned before, a string of advice, and all of it advising Laertes what to be when he is away: 

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,

Bear ’t that th’ opposèd may beware of thee.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment…

Neither a borrower nor a lender {be}…

(ln 67-81)

It’s irony at its finest. Polonius tells his son what kind of man he should be yet, in the end, he tells his son to just be himself. It’s more comedic and less thought-provoking than what people entail it to be. The message, then, is eschewed, almost insincere, and extremely contradictory. This irony is transferred out of the text and into the real world, with generations of readers seeing and/or hearing the line and having it connect to their own life because of the pretty meter and inspiring “message.”

Is there a possible redemption for this line in particular? While Frost disconnects any sort of inspiration from his poem, Shakespeare has a few ways to bend this particular line to become more sincere and meaningful. In some cultures, Fathers are generally seen as overbearing and caring, trying to find moments to teach a lesson (and sometimes many lessons at once) to their children, and when this happens it can be comical. The Father in this context, Polonius, has been reunited with his son after a tragedy in his court. When Laertes asks to leave, Polonius makes an attempt to ensure safety to his son by giving a slew of advice all at once, then to counter all of the said advice with a simple “just be yourself, and forget about the rest.” Though extremely tedious to achieve this tone through text, it is easy to forget that Shakespeare is a play, and a performance of this scene could transfer such a stone easily to the audience. Such a performance was done at the West End production of Hamlet, with Andrew Scott starring as the titular role and Peter Wight as Polonius. Wight made the choice to ramble the first advice, going on and on with nonsensical lessons when he took a breath, realized his actions, and corrected them by saying “This above all: to thine own self be true.” It was a very heartfelt moment, and a beautiful way to take control of one reading and making it another.

This essay was not meant, in any way, to judge those who take the text at surface value, or make anyone feel less intelligent because they conceived the text “wrong.” The more comical part about these misinterpretations is they are indeed inspirational, regardless of the intention of the text. People look at these lines when they face hardships when they feel less valuable or feel less human, and mold them into mantras and through-lines. Yes, “The Road Not Taken” is a poem about regret, but there are plenty of those who hear that ultimate stanza and let it sink to their bones to achieve, to create, to inspire others. So it is indeed wrong to say these texts are not inspirational, because they certainly connect with people in some fashion. Isn’t that the reason for reading to begin with? Reading should make you think, it should make you feel, and sometimes it does both at such extreme levels you will never forget when and where you were when you first read it. Readers have taken the road less traveled because of Frost, and readers have been true to themselves because of Shakespeare. There is beauty in irony that is unmatched to anywhere else.

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