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Self-Reliance and the Road Not Taken
American Transcendentalism: Emerson and Frost
There are several qualities that are inherent in American literature that help to set it apart from English literature. Among the earliest themes explored in American literature was the concept of self-reliance and individuality. These concepts are prevalent of writers and advocates of Transcendentalism, a subset of American Romanticism. Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the concept of individuality in his essay, "Self-Reliance," and also aimed to define how self-worth is measured. Likewise, Robert Frost embraces the concepts of individuality and self-worth as defined by Emerson. Emerson's influence on Frost can be seen in the theme and narrative of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." Both Emerson and Frost comment on the importance of the self and the impact that individuality has on a person.
Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement that aimed to bring an individual to recognize that non-conformism and self-reliance were key elements in allowing him or her to realize goals to their fullest capacity. Some of the basic premises of American Transcendentalism include the belief that the individual "is the spiritual center of the universe;" "the structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self," that is to say that in order to understand the world an individual must first understand themselves; nature is symbolic; and "the belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization" (Reuben). As a subset of American Romanticism, nature plays an important role in transcendentalism and is meant to provide instruction and/or inspiration ("Romanticism"). Moreover, nature was seen as a vehicle by which an individual could seek to fulfill his or her potential and move towards the fulfillment of the Self (Reuben).
Much of the Transcendentalist movement is focused around the writings of Emerson including "Self-Reliance" in which he outlines the importance of non-conformism and dependence on one's self. In "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes about the importance of being able to think for oneself and to not dismiss one's beliefs and personal thoughts because they do not conform to what the great thinkers have previously expressed. Emerson writes, "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages" (Emerson). Moreover, Emerson contends that an individual sees in others that which they seek to express by stating, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty" (Emerson). Furthermore, Emerson argues that it is necessary for the persistence of humanity that self-reliance and non-conformity be practiced. Emerson explains that conformity benefits only those that wish to "surrender the liberty and the culture" of the individual to please the masses. Additionally, Emerson insinuates that a person cannot be fulfilled as an individual if he or she conforms to social expectations and norms. Simply because others do not understand what an individual does or thinks does not make that person inferior, but rather allows them to excel beyond what is expected. As Emerson writes, "To be great is to be misunderstood" (Emerson).
These concepts are evident in Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." In the poem, an unnamed narrator reflects on the decisions that he has made in the past and recognizes that his decision to not conform has made his life so much better. In the poem, the narrator faces the seemingly difficult decision of deciding which road to take when he comes upon "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" (Frost, line 1). If one assumes that the roads are a metaphor for the type of life the narrator will choose to live and that each road will terminate at a common destination, i.e. death, then the narrator must simply choose which road he wishes to travel on based on the impact he wants to have on the world and what experiences he wishes to have. The narrator's curious nature, however, leaves him disappointed that he is not afforded the opportunity to explore both roads and states that he was "sorry [he] could not travel both" (line 2).
By carefully analyzing what each road may potentially offer, the narrator in the poem demonstrates that he is able to form an opinion based upon his own observations and is not dependent on what others that have come before him have done. In order to do this, the narrator "looked down one [road] as far as [he] could/To where it bent in the undergrowth" (lines 4-5). The narrator also examines the other road "just as fair/And having perhaps the better claim/Because it was grassy and wanted wear" (line 8). However, the narrator notes that passersby "had worn them really about the same/And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black" (lines 10-12). In this instance, the narrator looks to nature as being symbolic of the decisions that different individuals have made throughout civilization. While the more worn path is representative of individuals who conformed to society and did nothing extraordinary to change the way the world thought or functioned, the less worn path is representative of those individuals who changed the world. Because of the opposing symbolic nature of these roads, and how each road will define the narrator, he must carefully consider what type of person he wants to be and accept that the fruits of his labor will be directly influenced by the amount of work that he is willing to put into making sure that his goals are met.
Emerson also argues that an individual cannot be a whole person if he or she cannot learn to live "with nature in the present, above time" (Emerson). An individual must learn to live in the present and not "with reverted eye [lament] the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, [stand] on tiptoe to foresee the future. An individual must recognize that he or she must take charge of their lives and establish the future that he or she wants for themselves. Moreover, those individuals must not be afraid of the impact that their actions will have on others, but must rest assured that their non-conformist attitudes, actions, or beliefs will further inspire others to seek their own paths in life. Emerson contends that by casting "off the common motives of humanity" an individual embraces a godlike power that allows him or her to take hold of his or her future, not without disregard for a higher power, but rather for the betterment of society.
The concept of living in the present and not looking back at the past with regret is also evident in Frost's poem. In the poem, the narrator has recognized and accepted that whichever path he chooses to travel will define what kind of person he becomes and knows that one day he will not necessarily look back on this decision with regret or lament, but rather look back on this decision in order to recount his tale to others who may be faced with a similar dilemma. The narrator expects that one day he will "be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence" (Frost, lines 16-17). Even though the narrator chose to take the road less traveled, he does not regret the decision that he made, but rather contends that his decision "has made all the difference" (line 20). The poem promotes individualism, independence, and self-reliance and, in addition, the pursuit of an individual's goals is encouraged and praised.
Emerson writes, "High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!" (Emerson). "It is easy to see…[continue]
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