The Road Always Taken

Among the emerging details regarding the death of Ted Kennedy, two catch my attention. The first comes from an article in today’s Times, in which it’s mentioned that, since late July, evenings at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port have featured parties and sing-alongs.

Jean Kennedy Smith, Mr. Kennedy’s sister, had rented a home down the street this summer and became a regular, too. Instead of singing, she would sometimes recite poetry.

Last year I had a student who balked at our class requirement of reciting 75 lines of verse. He told me that he could understand how this exercise might have been necessary in “the old days,” but that he didn’t see why he should waste his time with it now, seeing as he could just find whatever he needed on the Internet. My student wouldn’t have been much use to Ted Kennedy in the senator’s final days. And now I’m thinking of William Blake, who, as reported by one of his friends, died singing.

The second detail is less encouraging. Kennedy’s desk in the Senate chamber is now draped in black cloth and topped with a vase of white roses and a copy of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” As I mentioned last week, the poem simply doesn’t contain the “I Did It My Way” slap of one’s own back that readers (lazy readers, I want to say) so often find in it. Frost biographer Jay Parini offers a forceful analysis of the poem’s central irony:

A close look at the poem reveals that Frost’s walker encounters two nearly identical paths: so he insists, repeatedly. The walker looks down one, first, then the other, “as just as fair.” Indeed, “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” As if the reader hasn’t gotten the message, Frost says for a third time, “And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: “When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying.” Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word “I,” which rhymes — several times — with the inflated word “sigh.” Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh.

I’ve been moved by much of what I’ve read concerning Senator Kennedy’s life — a life spent championing equal rights for those who’ve often lacked such rights. (I’ll leave the obsessive focus on the senator’s less admirable moments to others.) But I wish a different poem now graced his desk. After Frost’s death in 1963, at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, Ted’s brother John spoke to the assembled crowd. The president paid tribute to a poet “whose sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.” Ted, I suspect, was similarly fortified.

From memory, now: Requiescat in pace.