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Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

Introduction and Text of "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" has been one of the most anthologized, analyzed, and quoted poems in American poetry. Published in 1916 in Robert Frost’s poetry collection titled, Mountain Interval, “The Road Not Taken,” has since been mistakenly interpreted as a piece that prompts non-conforming behavior, a philosophy of the efficacy of striking out on one’s own, instead of following the herd. Thus, it is often quoted at commencement ceremonies.

However, a close look at the poem reveals a slightly different focus. Instead of offering a moralizing piece of advice, the poem merely demonstrates how memory often glamorizes past choices despite the fact that the difference between the choices were minuscule, even virtually non-existent. It also shows how the mind tends to focus on the choice one had to abandon in favor of the one selected.

Edward Thomas and "The Road Not Taken"

While Robert Frost lived in England from 1912 to 1914, he became fast friends with fellow poet, Edward Thomas. Frost has suggested that "The Road Not Taken" was inspired by Thomas, who would continue to fret over the path the couple could not take as they were out walking in the woods near their village.

The 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.

Frost Reading "The Road Not Taken"

Commentary

Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken" "very tricky"; readers have not heeded his advice to be careful with this one; thus a misunderstanding brings this poem into places for which it is not suitable.

First Stanza: The Decision and the Process of Deciding

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;

In the first stanza, the speaker reveal that he has been out walking in the woods when he approaches two roads; he stops and peers down each road as far as he can. He then claims that he would like to walk down each road, but he is sure he does not have enough time to experience both. He knows he must take one road, and so his decision making process begins.

Second Stanza: The Reluctant Choice

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,

After scrutinizing both roads, he decides to start walking down the one that seems "less traveled." He admits they were “really about the same.” They were, of course, not exactly the same, but in reality there was not much difference between them. Both roads had been “traveled,” but he fancies that he chooses the one because it was a little less traveled than the other.

Notice at this point how the actual choice in the poem seems to deviate from the title. The speaker takes the road less taken, not actually the one “not taken,” as the title seems to claim. Of course, the title also lends to the moralizing interpretation. The road not taken is the one not taken by the speaker—both roads have been taken by others, but the speaker being just one individual could take only one.

Third Stanza: Really More Similar Than Different

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.

Because the decision making process can be complex and lengthy, the speaker continues to reveal his thinking about the two roads into the third stanza. But again he reports how the roads were really more similar than different.

Fourth Stanza: The Ambiguous Sigh

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.

In the final stanza, the speaker projects how he will look back on his decision in the distant future. He surmises that he will remember taking a “less traveled” road, and that decision “has made all the difference."

The problem with interpreting the poem as advice for individualism and non-conformity is that the speaker is only speculating about how his decision will affect his future. He cannot know for certain that his decision was a wise one, because he has not yet lived it. Even though he predicts that he will think it was a positive choice when he says, it “made all the difference,” a phrase that usually indicates a good difference, in reality, he cannot know for sure.

The use of the word, “sigh,” is also ambiguous. A sigh can indicate relief or regret—two nearly opposite states of mind. Therefore, whether the sigh comports with a positive difference or negative cannot be known to the speaker at the time he is musing in the poem. He simply has not lived the experience yet.

"Tricky Poem"

Frost referred to this poem as a tricky poem, and he admonished readers "to be careful of that one." He knew that human memory tends to gloss over past mistakes and glamorize the trivial. He also was aware that a quick, simplistic perusal of the poem could yield an erroneous understanding of it.

The poet also has stated that this poem reflects his friend Edward Thomas' attitude while out walking in the wood near London, England. Thomas continued to wonder what he might be missing by not being able to walk both routes, thus the title’s emphasis on the road “not taken.”

 Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp

Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp

Second Lieutenant Philip Edward Thomas

Second Lieutenant Philip Edward Thomas

Life Sketch of Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas was born in London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. He attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London, and after he graduated, he took the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, Thomas discovered his intense interest in writing, and instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes. In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life . Thomas had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.

In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree. Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. His earnings were meager and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years. Luckily for Thomas' writing, the family's move to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep Village provided positive influence on his writing about landscapes. The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas, who had suffered melancholy breakdowns because of his inability to engage in his favorite creative writing interests.

Friendship with Robert Frost

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments, Questions, Suggestions

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 20, 2015:

Thank you, Romeos, for your kind response. It's always gratifying for a writer to find out their writing is useful to others. Also thank you for becoming a follower.

Romeos Quill from Lincolnshire, England on September 20, 2015:

The exploratory nature of your Hub article I thought was very good, particularly;

"... the poem merely demonstrates how memory often glamorizes past choices despite the fact that the difference between the choices were not so great. It also shows how the mind tends to focus on the choice one had to abandon in favor of the one selected. "

These sentences seem to account for a great deal of the substance of poetry which you explained very succinctly for a dunderhead like me and your exposition of Mr. Frost's four stanzas were as clear as day with your no-nonsense elucidation.

Thank you for an interesting read and for your support;

With kind Regards;

R.Q.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 19, 2015:

Thanks, whoru!

whonunuwho from United States on September 19, 2015:

One of my favorite poets and very inspiring. Thanks for sharing. whonu