Misconceptions: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

Perhaps your whole life you thought this poem by Robert Frost was all about the importance of taking the road more seldom trod, about taking the unconventional path. That is the common interpretation, but I don’t see it that way. Here’s the original text, and then we can work this mess out.

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.

I love poems that talk about roads. It’s such a wonderful metaphor for the choices we make in life, and a comparison of the journey we travel through time. And that’s exactly what this is – I agree with that. What the meaning of the choice here is – that is where I differ in the common interpretation.

In the first stanza, the narrator stands there at the fork making his decision. He can’t take both roads and remain one person. He must choose one, though he does not know what it leads to, looking as far down “to where it bent” as possible. And to continue the metaphor, that is what our choices mean every day too. We can’t both keep our job and quit it for another one, or go to both UC Berkeley and Rice University at once.

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Now, if you look at the second stanza, the road the narrator chooses is “just as fair”, although slightly different because it is “grassy and wanted wear”. This is where people get mixed up and think that it’s better to choose the less common journey. Actually, in the next line, Frost writes that they were “really about the same”. So the purpose of that stanza is just to establish that these two roads were different, enough so that he had to make a choice.

The conventional interpretation doesn’t really hold in up in the third stanza. Again, he says the paths “equally lay”, and that the way “no step had trodden black”. They are not really that different, but the narrator has to make this choice, no matter how arbitrary it seems. Tolkien’s line “roads go ever ever on” echoes Frost’s “how way leads on to way” here, and both demonstrate the nature of one decision leading to another and ending up in a completely different place, had a different choice been made at this point, and also the fact that we cannot “come back” and remake this decision – the only way is forward, permitting moments of hesitation only. Time progresses in a linear fashion. There is no going back.

The final stanza is one from a retrospective point of view, “ages and ages hence”. By this time, choice will have led to choice. If you’ve heard of the “multiverse theorem”, there are infinite possibilities of where you could have ended up, and based on a single decision made, a single fork in the road taken, it makes “all the difference”, and all you can wonder “with a sigh” at that point is what other possibility you had forfeited, but such is life. That statement, “I took the one less traveled by” is not so significant as the fact that the narrator was forced to choose.

Read through the poem again and see if this makes sense! I hope you’re able to see Frost’s poem in the same way as I do now. It’s truly great! ~Gloria

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8 thoughts on “Misconceptions: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

  1. Gabryela Speaks says:

    I do agree that a part of it was about making decisions.. still, i believe he made an unpopular choice and this poem represents that somehow.

    once, someone told me that a poem is only understood when the reader shares the same feelings or experience. some poems we may partially understand or not at all.

    this was a stimulating read. thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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