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What might have been?

On the Seine, 2014

Like Frost's The Road Not Taken, John Greenleaf Whittier instead contemplates the road most taken.

His poem Maud Muller is most famous for containing the lines "of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these; it might have been," but reading it it is more immersive than those lines might suggest. It also dispenses with the class divide in the name of love but also as a brief, escapist fantasy.

Maud and her Judge saw in each other a missed opportunity to avoid the things they think are making them unhappy, but it is their nature they want to escape. It was not long before the poem spawned a parody that describes their marriage as a trial for both with expectations still unmet.

Oscar Wilde might have provided a solution in The Importance of Being Earnest in the form of Bunburying (having a kind of imaginary patsy) but most of us don't have another setting to escape to. However it occurred to me while reading this poem that I did; like Maud Muller but with air miles or like the Judge, with no money.

This poem caught me between London, Dublin and Melbourne; roads taken or abandoned where a version of me remains in the two where I am not resident. What might have been is a question that comes up too often, as I depart from one place to go to another.

The message of the poem, after the naivety of the prologue, is that the simplicity of youthful dreams are remembered in vain, shorn of a meaningful chance to realise them.

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