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Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

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

Friends:  Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

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.”

 Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

Second Lieutenant Philip Edward Thomas

Second Lieutenant Philip Edward Thomas

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

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