August 28, 2009

The lonely, rose-covered Senate desk

Since Ted Kennedy's internment in Arlington Cemetery will be closed to the public, I visited the Senate today with the help of a certain Dartmouth congressional intern to see his desk and pay my respects. Because the Senate is not currently in session, and in such times no pictures or videos are allowed to be taken of the floor, you'll have to rely on my description. As per Senate tradition, his desk is draped in black, and placed on the level top is a bowl of white roses. His desk is rather far in the back, which I found surprising given his seniority. Maybe he wanted it that way. His chair was one of few I could see that had a tan butt cushion, and I'm not really sure what to make of it.

Also on his desk was a single piece of paper, printed with the words of The Road Not Taken by the great Robert Frost. Consulting various news outlets, I can't seem to find out who is responsible for putting it there, or what personal significance it might have had for him, besides the fact that Frost came and spoke at the JFK inauguration. The Road Not Taken is so overused and frequently misunderstood that I find its placement on Kennedy's desk rather curious and worthy of examination. Here are the words:
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.
What did the placer mean when he put this on the desk? Did he fall victim of the ignorant view that the poem is about individuality and the importance of choices? Was the poem choice suppose to honor the "trail-blazing" leadership of the Kennedy clan, of taking the life path less traveled as described in the last stanza?

That would certainly be a moving tribute if the poem didn't directly contradict that interpretation in the second and third stanza, when the paths are revealed to be equal in wear and leaf cover. Only in the projected future will the narrator amend reality to romanticize the decision. And further, in the immediate present of the decision, the speaker knows that he will speak of his decision later in time not with with defiance but with a regretful sigh.

Instead the poem illustrates the irony of a sentimentalist, knowing he will regret a meaningless choice, wishing perhaps to see where all roads lead before taking a step in either direction, and, once he does, inflating the story beyond what it actually was. Doesn't sound very fitting. Doesn't sound very Kennedy.

Instead I'd suggest putting a different Frost poem on Kennedy's desk, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
First, the poem is set in the cold and snowy night of winter, alluding to the cold, the darkness, and the somberness of death. Second, the narrator is in isolation, as Kennedy now is in death. His only company, a horse (which for political purposes might as well be a donkey), expresses a desire to keep progressing to their objective (health care?) before turning in for the night. Last, the ending quatrain hearkens to the yet daunting amount of unfinished work to be done, the unfinished destiny of "the dream", the endurance of "the hope". And in all these things we find our Teddy Kennedy and are reminded of why we'll miss him so very much for so very long.


  1. Anonymous1:52 PM

    At the funeral today, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) did end up quoting the last quatrain of "Stopping by Woods...", however he identified it as "The Road Less Traveled", a common misnomer for "The Road Not Taken."

  2. Anonymous8:49 PM

    Kennedy's desk is in the back because he wanted to be at the same place where his brother once sat.