The h2g2 Literary Corner: Maud Muller and the Road Not Taken

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Sometimes the road not taken can break our hearts. Sometimes, it just makes you laugh.

Maud Muller and the Road Not Taken

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

In 1856, American poet John Greenleaf Whittier published a poem called 'Maud Muller'. The illustration above by W.J. Hennessy is from an 1867 edition. It's a sad poem. Maud Muller is a poor but lovely country girl. One day, she happens to meet a local judge, who's out riding. They exchange a few words. They're rather taken with each other. Maud would like to marry the judge and move up in the world, while the judge wishes he could be a farmer and have a simple life, as long as he could spend it gazing into Maud's hazel eyes. But they don't say anything.

The judge marries a rich society woman, and is unhappy. Maud marries an uneducated farmer, has a lot of kids, and gets beaten down by life. Both spend the rest of their lives thinking about the what-if. As Whittier puts it, 'For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: "It might have been!"' And that saying has become a byword for missed opportunities.

Bret Harte, on the other hand, thought this was all bunk. His parody, 'Mrs Judge Jenkins', imagines the couple married – with less than salubrious results. Maud gets stout, and her grammar embarrasses the judge, who thinks, 'And there be women as fair as she/Whose nouns and verbs do more agree'. Her relatives are no picnic, either. The judge bores the socks off Maud, too. Harte concludes:

If, of all words of tongue and pen,

The saddest are, 'It might have been,'

More sad are these we daily see:

'It is, but hadn't ought to be.'

The moral of this story is probably that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

13.07.15 Front Page

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