The Road not Taken by Robert Frost
We make choices every day. Some of them are small and trivial like deciding what to have for breakfast, while others such as deciding on a career are huge and potentially life-changing. Some decisions are simple to make whereas others are inherently difficult and require due deliberation. Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ is a poem about the hard choices we face and the conscious decisions we take in life. It is a portrayal of the state of human mind in the process of making such life altering decisions. The poem captures the feelings of indecisiveness in the face of decisions and the agony of regrets.
Since its publication in 1916 in the journal ‘Mountain Interval’ the poem has gained widespread popularity. It is one the most frequently quoted poems by orators in motivational talks and is seen as the most common end address in valedictorian speeches. The poet Robert Frost gained much fame since the poem’s publication and is now hailed as one of the greatest poets in American literature. The Road not Taken is undisputedly his most popular work. The poem was conceived as a consequence of Frost’s stay in London in his early forties where he became acquainted with the writer Edward Thomas who was to later become a dear friend of the poet. The two would go on long walks and Thomas was a great inspiration in the production of the poem.
The poem is often interpreted as a symbol of encouragement to follow one’s dreams and take control of one’s own life. And while it is true to some extent, the poem has a much deeper meaning. It is not merely a reflection on the choices we make in life, be it good and bad. The poet wonders how different his life would have been if he’d made a different choice instead. It is more a rumination over the opportunities turned down. The poem is neutral towards the outcome of the choices and concentrates only on the instance when one is on the brink of making a choice.
The theme of the poem ‘The Road not Taken’ revolves around choices. It is about the decisions we make and the fact that we must live with them. The poem is often seen as an inspirational piece as it propagates the idea of choosing the unconventional and favouring the new and unexplored ways. It is seen as a salute to individualism due to the popular interpretation. However, the poem is much more queer and vague than it appears at first glance. While lines like ‘I took the one (road) less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’ advocate the idea of taking the proverbial leap of faith believing that it will lead to good things when read individually, the same doesn’t fit in the full context of the poem. It also appears as a commentary on our own self-deception. The poem has two interpretations which form a stark contrast with each other. One, which is popularly held by laymen is that it is a motivational address, whilst the other regarded mostly by some poetry scholars is that is it completely the opposite of inspirational and delves in the realm of ‘quiet regret’ as a mere cautionary tale. The poet achieves this by remaining neutral in the poem regarding his choices and allows the reader to pick out the meaning they want from the poem. This makes it universal in nature and is a testament to its popularity.
Structurally the poem is divided into four stanzas with five lines each.
The poem follows a traditional sense in rhythm and uses Iambic feet throughout the poem. However, the lines in the poem do not form a perfect meter. They closely resemble Iambic tetrameter. The lines are not strict regarding individual syllables when forming rhythmic feet. We see the poet favouring the ease of comprehension to rhythmic attribute in the poem.
The poem has a ABAAB rhyme scheme. There is a notable example of enjambment serving the purpose of maintaining rhyme scheme in the last stanza in the lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by,” This trait was prevalent in older English poems but has since seen a gradual decline.
The poet uses ‘roads’ as a symbol for choices. Since roads invoke an image of passing and journeying, the symbol represents progression in life.
The Road Not Taken: Stanza-wise Explanation
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;
The poet narrates how he once arrived at a fork in the road where he had to choose between two roads to continue on his journey. This image of a traveller in a yellow wood is a metaphor for the choice between two alternatives. The poet says that he is sorry that he could not travel through both roads (meaning that he could not choose both the alternatives). The poet, as the speaker of the poem, makes an address to the reader which is a point of interest in this stanza. There are two theories regarding this. One is that Robert Frost dedicated this poem to Thomas and thus is addressing him over a mutual topic through the medium of the poem. This seems quite plausible as Frost even sent a copy of the anthology to his friend Thomas who took it rather personally. The other is that Frost is addressing to the general reader in which case the poem takes universal nature.
The poet was in a predicament as he stood before the diverging roads in the yellow wood. He stood there for a long time contemplating over which road he should take, that is which choice he should go with. The term ‘One traveller’ is a significant one here in the poem. It gives us an idea that the speaker was attempting something all on his own on which he couldn’t have asked anyone for assistance. He looked down one road as far as he could see to inspect how it was. This is a metaphor for his act of deliberation when making the decision. When we make big decisions we usually weigh the pros and cons and contemplate how a certain decision would affect us before we’ve taken it. The poet’s act of looking down the road to where it bent is a reflection of this.
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,
The poet pondered for a long time over which road he should travel on as he stood in the yellow wood. He inspected one road and simply took the second which was just as agreeable as the first one. After thoroughly examining the first option the poet turned to the second and decided that he was going to go with this choice. The poet explains his reasons for taking the second choice or ‘road’ in the ensuing lines in the poem. It is important to note here that the poet says both the roads, that is, both the choices were ‘equally fair’ or agreeable. He does not say that one was good and the other bad, but that one was perhaps better than the other, the key word to look for here being ‘perhaps’. This is often misinterpreted.
The poet says that the road he chose had a better claim than the one he let go because it was untraveled, thus grassy, and it was as if the road was wanting wear and tear. This is to say that the choice that the poet had decided on was something new, something no one had done before. These two lines are interpreted as encouragement to find and explore new avenues by readers.
Again, in the following lines, the poet says that though the second road was grassy it was worn just about the same as the other. This is contrasting to the previous lines and further suggests that the poet viewed both the roads, meaning both the choices, about just the same. So, it feels almost as if the poet picked the second road at random.
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.
Both the roads were equally unexplored that morning when the speaker came to the divergence in the wood. Both of them were equally untouched. We infer this when the poet further adds that the leaves on both the roads were not trodden black. No one had passed through the road that morning before the speaker came there. This further develops the idea that the poet was doing something unique which no one before him had attempted. The use of the term ‘equally’ here is to be regarded with caution. The poet says that the two roads or ‘choices’ were equal only in the sense that both were ‘untraveled’ or ‘unexplored’.
The poet decided to take the second road and says that he kept the first one for some other day. We can see that the poet is unsure of what his decision will lead to and thus wants to keep his options open. He further adds that he knows how one decision leads on to another such that one goes so far that there is no way of turning back. The poet is doubtful if he will ever return to the same place from where he started. So, the poet kept the first road (meaning his first choice) as a contingency plan.
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 words of Lawrence Thompson who wrote a biography on Frost, the poet as the poem’s speaker is ‘one who habitually wastes energy in regretting any choice made: belatedly but wistfully he sighs over the attractive alternative rejected.‘ The poet says that he will be recollecting this story with a sigh. Whether this ‘sign’ would be a melancholic one lamenting the decision or a sigh of relief for having made the right decision, we do not know. We see that although the poet has decided on a single choice, he is not completely happy and will thus be recollecting the memory of the decision with a manifestation of grief looking back at what he’d done. Although both the choices are equally dear to the poet, he wanted to have both and not just choose between the two. This is shown by the initial lines in the first stanza ‘and sorry I could not travel both.’ This is the reason why the poet appears unhappy.
The poet says that he ‘took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’ This is an often-quoted part of the poem and has grown to represent as a symbol of motivation for people to do the unconventional and partake in the new and promising without fear. The line ‘and that has made all the difference’ has turned into the idea that ‘to stand out from the crowd one must do something different and original.’ Although this is a good conception, it does not fit exactly with the poem as we’ve explained in the theme section of this article.
The poet says that taking the road less travelled has made all the difference in his life but whether this difference is positive or negative is unclear. On one hand we can assume that it is negative, as the poet says he would sigh recollecting this, making the poem more of a cautionary note on unconventional choices, while on the other hand the sigh can be a sigh of relief for having made the right decision, making the poem an inspirational piece. Whatever the poet’s original idea may be, the poem has found an enormous readership with each person deciding the meaning for themselves. There is no denying that ‘The Road not Taken’ is one of the most celebrated poems today.