The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost’s familiar poem is perhaps also one of his most misunderstood. Let’s take a moment to consider why.
Few poems are mentioned more often, in conversations about creativity and success, than Robert Frost’s wonderful meditation, The Road Not Taken.
Unfortunately, while the poem is often mentioned, the meaning is often lost in the rush to take the opening and closing lines as some sort of pithy statement about making brave, unconventional life choices, when in fact, the poem may well be trying to tell us something rather more profound and challenging.
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.
Three Key Elements
The traveller is faced with a decision, to take one path or another one. But, Frost makes clear both paths are “about the same” and that morning “equally lay” un-walked upon that day.
The real dilemma is not that one path is better than the other. Rather, it is that by taking one path, the traveller is unlikely to ever back to this fork again, unlikely to ever travel along the road not taken.
So, the poem’s focus is not so much on the decision, since it’s largely a meaningless one; the traveller has to make a choice, but it’s a choice between two equal options.
Rather, the problem for the traveller is how they will tell the story, “ages and ages hence.” If put ourselves in the traveller’s shoes, then Frost is not calling us to reflect upon our decisions, but to reflect upon how we explain our decisions.
Many commentators spend a lot of time on the “sigh” that opens the final stanza. Is this a sigh of regret, or a sigh of satisfaction?
I’m more inclined to focus on the comma that ends the third line of this stanza, since this is the point when the traveller, many years after they chose which road to follow, is faced with the really important decision – how do they tell the story,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,”
Telling The Story – Exaggerating The Story
That comma is like a pause, a hesitation if you will. The traveller could tell the truth, could tell what we already know from the opening lines; that the choice was really not much of a choice at all, that choosing one path over another didn’t matter.
However, the traveller lies, or at the very least exaggerates, not only claiming one road was “less traveled by” rather than being “about the same” and then goes on to claim the decision to take this supposedly less travelled road somehow made “all the difference.”
We like to believe we are unique, special, living a life full of brave, creative choices. However, the reality is often rather more prosaic and mundane than we might care to admit.
The Road Not Taken is a great poem, not because it defends some kind of bohemian notion of making unconventional life choices but because Frost so eloquently and succulently challenges our need to make ourselves look good, as we so often try to do, when we subtly embellish and enhance the details of our life story.