What’s the difference between Florence in the Middle Ages on the cusp of the Renaissance and New England in the early 20th century on the cusp of modernism? It is interesting to look at the different ways that Dante and Robert Frost sense the issues in arriving in very different dark forests. They are each prototypical travelers of their time periods who find themselves lost in the prototypical woods of their geography and era. But each states their poetic predicament differently. For each of them, these are arguably the most famous lines they ever wrote:
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood…
––Dante Alighieri, from The Divine Comedy ( early 14th century)
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
––Robert Frost, from The Road Not Taken (1920)
Dante is the most famous poet of all time; Frost was the most famous poet in 20th century America. Both poets liken their choice of paths in life to finding their way through forest paths.
For Dante, very focused on moral imperatives, there is only one right road. He is definitely NOT on it at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, from which these lines are taken—but he will be on the right road by the end of the poem some 13,000 lines later.
For Frost, freed from the strictures of traditional religious and moral thinking, there are two roads, but the choice is a highly subjective and relativist one. Frost’s brief, 20-line poem suggests that he is not sure he has taken the right road.