The Road Not Taken (1916)
After being named poet laureate in 1997, Robert Pinsky took a year-long poll to determine who was America’s favorite poet. With more than 18,000 votes cast, from participants aged five to 97, Frost came out on top. When participants were asked which poems they most liked to read, they most often cited “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
One of Frost’s best-known poems, opening his third book, Mountain Interval, “The Road Not Taken” was first published in the August 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. While Pinsky’s poll demonstrates the poem’s broad appeal, that appeal is at least partly due to its being most often read by people who do not read it closely enough to discover its complexities or who quickly dismiss those complexities in favor of the trite paraphrases that come to mind when people are asked what the poem might be “about.” Many attempt answers such as “taking a different road from that of the masses” or “being an individual” or “finding one’s own road in life.” And while none of these answers would be altogether incorrect, they all reduce the subtle complexities of the poem to platitudes.
Part of what accounts for the popularity of “The Road Not Taken” is that Frost, until the latter half of the twentieth century, was viewed as a nature poet, in the purest New England sense. But beginning with Randall Jarrell and continuing through Lionel Trilling, Roberts W. French, and others, the dark side of Frost or the “other” Frost, as Jarrell phrased it, has been given much attention. It has become clear that to know Frost is to apprehend the darkness in his poems as well as the light, and this darkness is evident in “The Road Not Taken” when it is read closely.
There is some biographical support for a cursory reading of the poem. Frost wrote a portion of the poem while in Gloucestershire, England. Lawrance Thompson writes that Frost had said to his friend Edward Thomas after “one of their best flower-gathering walks” that “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another” (88). When Frost completed the poem, he sent a copy to Thomas as a letter, without comment. Thomas called the poem “staggering” in his response, explaining that “the word ‘staggering’ . . . did no more than express (or conceal) the fact that the simple words and unemphatic rhythms were not such as [he] was accustomed to expect great things, things [he] like[d], from.” Thomas said it “staggered [him] to think that perhaps [he] had always missed what made poetry poetry if it was here. [He] wanted to think it was here” (Spencer, 62).
The poem begins, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” The speaker is out for an autumn walk and is confronted with two paths. He cannot take both, so he looks down one as far as he can to where it “ben[ds] in the undergrowth,” hoping to determine which road might be better to take. He decides on “the other,” which is described as just as “fair” and as “grassy and wanting wear.” The speaker imagines the other road might have the “better claim” on him, as it has not been often traveled.
The first contradiction of this seemingly simple poem occurs in the latter half of stanza two, when the speaker reveals that “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” The roads, then, are not worn differently, as the speaker first suggests; rather, they have both been traveled (or not), and the grass of both has either been beaten down or untouched. Just how “worn” they are is unclear. In fact, stanza three reveals that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” At this point, the first image of a grassy path is juxtaposed with a path of fresh leaves that has not yet been blackened by steps. That each path earlier that day “equally lay” suggests that the paths themselves have always been “equal,” with neither more worn than the other. That morning neither path had been traveled, making the chronology of the poem somehow miss a step. If they were both untouched that morning, then there is a hint that at least one is no longer untouched. Frost will confirm this at the end of the poem.
The traveler decides that he will keep one road for another day, but “knowing how way leads on to way” is aware that one decision leads to another and another and that he will never be faced with this same decision again. Because of this awareness, he doubts that he will “ever come back.” He imagines that some day he will tell this story with a “sigh,” whether of regret or satisfaction is unclear. The choice of “sigh” establishes the uncertainty of interpretations. Will he be disappointed that he could not take both roads, disappointed in the road he took, or altogether satisfied?
Although the traveler took the road “less traveled by,” it remains unclear at the end of the poem which one that was. He claims it “has made all the difference,” but it is clear that either road would have made all the difference. In the end the difference appears to have nothing to do with which road is chosen, as each would have had an impact on the traveler’s life. Also, the question of equality has little to do with the roads themselves. The speaker knows he will sigh, perhaps because he cannot make all decisions or do all things, and that there are limitations to his choices, but he will not know what sort of sigh he will emit until he reaches the end of this road, his road.
The poem is not just about individuality, as one might suppose; instead it is about an individual’s choices and experiences. While the road is often read as the focus of the poem, it is the speaker’s perspective that is at its center. The complexities lie in how he views the roads. At first one seems grassy and lacking wear, but then the speaker catches himself and says that in actuality they were worn essentially the same. He could not see past the undergrowth of one, “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” Whether fresh or trodden, the roads are now equal. Either they are equally configured or it is not they that are equal but the possibility that they hold for travel that is equal. After all, any value placed on one road over the other has only to do with the speaker’s recollection and interpretation.
The road is valuable because the traveler took it; it has no value in and of itself. And yet the title is about a road that was not taken. It could be about the road that, prior to his taking it, had not been taken. But if the sigh at the end of the poem is one of regret, or simply weariness, then perhaps the title is about the road the speaker did not choose, rather than about the one he took. The question remains whether it is a sigh over the road that had not been taken before he took it or over the road he did not take. This, like all else in the poem, is intentionally ambiguous.
The poem is celebrated at least partly because it can be easily reduced to an adage, but it is among Frost’s best, most riveting, and most complex. It is an epic work in its ambiguity and seeming simplicity. The roads do not intertwine, but the language does until the reader is lost in that autumn yellow wood, wondering if neither road was traveled or if both were. The “I” of “I took the one less traveled by” makes all the difference, as the repetition of the first person throughout emphasizes.
The poem moves from a story about a walk in autumn to a story about the traveler himself. Soon it is not about the season or the road. Frost once denied being a nature poet, saying that he must not be one since he had written only two poems without a human being in them, and this is a particularly important point to keep in mind in the reading of this poem.
The human condition is that we can travel only one road at a time. What makes all the difference in the end, we are left to ponder. And what difference it makes (to us, to nature, to the universe), we are also left to wonder. Frost purposefully leaves many of the questions raised by the poem unanswered. Perhaps the sigh most of all indicates that it is not about taking both roads or about which road was taken but about having to choose only one. We will always sigh that we cannot take both roads, but the fact that we make the choice to do something at all is of ultimate importance. The repetition of “Two roads diverged” is the reminder of the opportunity to decide and to make a choice. As Mark Richardson writes, “Our paths unfold themselves to us as we go. We realize our destination only when we arrive at it, though all along we were driven toward it by purposes we may rightly claim, in retrospect, as our own” (182).
A final consideration is the choice of the word “road.” Certainly a road might be defined as a course or a path, but it is also most often thought of as a public thoroughfare. That Frost selected “road” over “path” seems to complicate even further the reading of the poem. One imagines a road well traveled, and a path seldom traveled. Perhaps this is further support for reading the roads as having been equally worn to all but the speaker. It is “ages and ages hence,” and we can never know what made all the difference.
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