Sometimes the road not taken can break our hearts. Sometimes, it just makes you laugh.
Maud Muller and the Road Not Taken
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.