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Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken" and "Design"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

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 poem has since been interpreted primarily as piece that prompts non-conforming behavior, a philosophy of the efficacy of striking out on one’s own, instead of following the herd.

Thus the poem 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 differences 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.

Edward Thomas and "The Road Not Taken"

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 on "The Road Not Taken"

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.

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.”

Friends:  Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

Introduction and Text of "Design"

Robert Frost's "Design" is an American, or Innovative, sonnet. It follows the Petrarchan form with an octave whose rime scheme is traditional, ABBAABBA, and a sestet, but the rime scheme of the sestet is quite innovative, ACAACC, with the final two lines echoing the couplet of the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, sonnet.

The speaker is musing on the strange coincidence of finding three albinos together in an odd conspiracy of death.

Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Reading of "Design"

Commentary on "Design"

The speaker of Frost's "Design" concocts a "conspiracy of death" as he muses on an odd happenstance.

First Quatrain in the Octave: An Astonished Speaker

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight

The speaker reports, somewhat astonished, that he has happened upon a white spider that is grasping and holding aloft a white moth and both were situated on a white heal-all. The speaker then describes the event as "assorted characters of death and blight" because of the eerie feeling such an unlikely sight has given him.

Indeed, the speaker likens the moth to "a white piece of rigid satin cloth," an image that serves the poet well in both rime and kinship to death, as caskets are often lined with a satin-finish material.

The speaker’s astonishment leads him immediately to assign "death and blight" to the situation. His shock at such a sight renders him amazed, as he begins to contemplate the possible meanings of such a collection of natural objects together.

Second Quatrain in the Octave: Odd Mixture

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

The so-called mixture of albino spider, moth, and flower, the speaker claims, was ready to begin the morning right. He then colorfully likens them to the ingredients of a witches brew. Again, the speaker richly describes the ingredients of this "witches' broth" as "a snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, and dead wings like a paper kite."

What the speaker must be thinking as starting a "morning right" leads him to concentrate squarely on the characters he has just encountered. He wonders what they all have to do with one another, and what kind of system would allow such a conglomeration to come together function.

It is not everyday that three albinos appear together in a natural scene. It would be unusual, indeed, if the speaker were not somewhat taken aback by what he is experiencing.

First Tercet in the Sestet: The Philosophy of Astonishment

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,

In the first tercet of the sestet, the speaker turns philosophical. His astonishment at happening upon such an uncanny sight leads him to question the appropriateness, even the naturalness, of it all and what one thing has to do with another.

For example, the speaker asks, why would a customarily blue flower suddenly take on the color of white?—not the normal hue for the "heal-all." And he explains that the heal-all is usually blue, and he calls it innocent—not a part of a witches' brew, as it is now appearing before him.

The speaker then poses the question, asking what caused this like-colored spider to come to this same place. Spiders are not usually white, just as the heal-all is not naturally white.

Why would these albinos just happen to appear together? He can only continue to describe the strange situation and wonder about it, as he muses on what motivations might have prompted these quite unlikely entities to be found together.

Second Tercet in the Sestet: A Puzzling Calumny

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Finally, the speaker wonders what might have "steered" the white moth to come there in the night—if it were, in fact, "steered" or otherwise led to that place. The speaker begins to muse on the likelihood of there being some pattern or "design" that has heralded this odd happenstance.

He begins to wonder if this bizarre occurrence could have been done with the express intention of appalling the poor soul who might have happened upon it. A negative spin can always be employed in what may appear to be a negative situation.

But then on the other hand, the speaker does not want to take too seriously that some design has conspired to such calumny; thus, he just sloughs it off by sticking the notion in an "if" clause and labeling the whole thing small.

The speaker has dramatized a small, ultimately inconsequential experience. But his musing will leave his readers wandering in the same bewildered state through which the speaker has mentally traveled.

The machinations of natural phenomena that humanity thinks it knows so well turns out to spring surprises on the minds and hearts of individuals who are observant.

And the observant who allow their minds to cogitate and their hearts to muse on certain events will always find that nature holds an abundance of puzzling and ofter surprising happenings.

Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error

(Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

  • Life Sketch of Robert Frost
    Taking his place among luminaries such as Dickinson and Whitman, Frost has remained one of the most widely anthologized poets of all time. His poems are darker and more complex than they seem.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 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