A Professor’s Journal: Two roads diverged in a wood

This Fall semester I have the good fortune of teaching both HIS 099 Freshman Transitions and HIS 400 Professional Engagement and Senior Seminar. Students in both classes are still in the process of figuring out who they are and how they will spend the rest of their days.

I want to speak to you, the reader, through the written word just as I speak to my students in class. Now, in your youth, you have, stretched out before you, the rest of your life. You have decisions to make, both academic and personal. Where will your roads take you? And how will you find the way?

C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar, Christian apologist, and writer of children’s stories and science fiction novels, found what was for him the narrow road that leads to life, a road less traveled, but only after he had journeyed along for some time. In 1922, long before he wrote “Surprised by Joy,” he began a long narrative poem, which he titled “Dymer.” The poem, published over four years after it was begun, had many favorable reviews, but few readers. A line from the poem, however, came to serve as the title for a published collection of Lewis’s diary entries from the mid-1920s. The collection’s title is taken from these lines found early on in the poem:

 

“You stranger, long before your glance can light

Upon these words, time will have washed away

The moment when I first took pen to write,

With all my road before me—yet to-day,

Here, if at all, we meet . . .”

 

These were heady days for the young Lewis, and he did indeed have all his road before him. In two years he would take a “First” (at Oxford University, a rare A+) in Classical Moderations (the Greek and Classical writers) and he was then, in 1922, studying for another examination in “Greats” (or Greek and Latin historians and philosophers). He yearned for an Oxford fellowship to teach and write. These were Lewis’ pre-Christian days, and as he wrote in his diary on that beautiful spring April Sunday, sitting in his “bedroom by an open window in bright sunshine” struggling to begin his poem, how could he have known what twists and turns his road would take?

Robert Frost, a more accomplished poet, wrote familiar lines about a “road not taken”:

 

“Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

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;

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

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 traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

Along with Frost, C. S. Lewis himself chose a road less traveled and what a difference that choice made for the thousands of us, later readers of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, “The Weight of Glory,” and all the rest. Just like my students, and just like you and even me at my advanced age, we too have all our roads before us. What choices will we make? Where will our roads take us?

 

Column By Duane Bolin, professor of history.