When the poet Robert Frost talked about “The Road Not Taken” as “very tricky”, he never made any specific references to actual reasons. In which case, readers may have taken this carefree commentary either as mere frivolity, or something akin to a complex equation that lent itself to hours of analysis and problem-solving. In the process of deciphering the poem’s meaning and the poet’s intent, two interpretations came out of the woodwork: one, that worked on a literal level yet enjoyed the approval of many; and two, a significantly darker reading that had obviously been negated by most audiences, and left in the hands of literary critics and poets.
The first version had all the ingredients needed to keep the poem known by the greater world, with its supposed meanings and lines immortalized as epigraphs in student papers and final statements in speeches of motivational speakers. In fact, the mere use of the words “less traveled by” gave the poem the alternative, yet mistaken title of “The Road Less Traveled”. Obviously, many of those who have read and memorized the poem took the road often traveled—that of reading it as a call to make the heartfelt choice in all things, no matter what others may say. It fits perfectly in the concept of individualism, an ideology that is deemed suitable in most occasions, to uphold the model of introspection and non-conformity.
While this is all good and positive, there is still the other interpretation that takes into consideration the poem as a whole—and not just the last few lines. In this, Frost goes beyond the idea of choice, and involves the emotions of doubt and regret—not quite within the mold of an inspirational piece. The “difference” he had alluded to may not even be the kind that makes a happy impact on one’s life, but a reference to lost chances and opportunities.
Between these two readings of the poem, the more apt one may be revealed through an in-depth analysis of the piece, a discussion of its technical and cultural qualities.
II. Robert Frost, In His Poem
Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California in 1874, to teachers whose scholarly lifestyles exposed him early on to the works of Shakespeare, Burns, and Wordsworth. The young Robert did extremely well in academics, athletics, and developed a talent for writing poetry that would eventually become his lifelong career. However, it was his love for the countryside and the great outdoors that would inspire him and his work, and would be the foundation of many of his most memorable pieces.
Over the years well into his adult life, Frost experienced much tragedy and sorrow, with the deaths of his son, mother, and daughter—all within a few years of each other. He continued to teach and write his poems, and in 1913 published his first collection, and one of the most recognized and celebrated of his works was “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The themes and imagery Frost used in this piece resound in his other poems, all idyllic descriptions of mountains, valleys, and views.
Sadly, while success came easily to Frost as he became popular as both writer and speaker, the blows of loss once again figured heavily in his life with the deaths of his sister, two daughters, and his wife Elinor. Robert Frost passed in January 1963 in Boston (The Literature Network, 2008).
A review of the poet’s life would expose two distinct worlds that had inspired his work—the experience of loss, and the love of nature.
III. Setting, Imagery, and Symbolism
The vivid imagery created to pertain to the persona’s location is actually arrived at with the use of simple words such as “yellow wood”, “grassy”, “undergrowth”, “leaves” and the neutral reference to “road”, and underlines the process and experience of a journey. With a minimum of lines and words, the poem was able to portray both the sense of adventure and melancholy of a lone traveler, and the carefree attitude of having uncertainty in one’s face.
On the outset, the reader is given a complete picture of the persona’s situation on two levels: superficially, that he is contemplating which actual road to take, and finally chooses one; and the figurative translation of the persona being beset with life’s choices, the process he took to reach to a decision, and a hint at the repercussions made by his final choice.
One of the incorrect assumptions of most is that there is one road that is less-traveled on, possibly because of the suggestions of the title and the last couple of lines. But Frost’s use of “Had worn them really about the same” classifies both roads as being of the same quality, wear and tear—which debunks the whole concept of choosing the option not made by most.
IV. Voice, Tone, and Diction
The five-line, four-stanza poem follows the ABAAB scheme, and are rhymed strictly and with a controlled sensibility. Unlike many poems of this time, “The Road Not Taken” and most of Frost’s poems do not make use of effusive descriptions and emotional portrayals; each word functions as an integral part of the poem’s theme and mood. Relatively straightforward and direct, this may be referred to as masculine, for the common traits of the feminine voice in poetry fall under an extensive use of emotions.
One thing to consider is Frost’s claim that the poem was written to pertain to his friend, poet Edward Thomas, who had been his walking companion numerous times in the London woods. Apparently, at several times, they would arrive at different paths—and Thomas would always contemplate on what they might have encountered has they taken the other one (Grimes, 2006). Because of this experiential basis, the masculine tone validates the nature of the poem—that it is not really about taking the other choice. It is, if truth were to be followed, but a friendly joke at the expense of Thomas, and not really the great inspirational poem it has been made out to be.
The poem maintains some movement, and can be simply narrated the way the persona sees the experience: (1) that while walking in the woods, he came upon two roads, and tries to make up his mind which to take, (2) that he took the road that seemed to show less wear, but realizes later that both were in the same state, (3) that the persona made note of the possible differences between the roads, and will try to take the other one at another occasion—however, he doubts that he may be able to do such, knowing that time is short, and (4) that he took the road he believed was less traveled by, and it made all the difference.
This is an expansion of a single moment in a traveler’s life, or, more realistically, in Frost’s and Thomas’ experience. The actual action takes place in the mind of the persona, and not in the physical journey.
The two interpretations established by various readings of the poem, while disparate in intent, both explore the reality and practicality of choice. Whether in literal travels or in journeys that map one’s life, choices are always present and these often make great impact.
The inspirational version does sound more palatable and useful, with the promise of being true to oneself and maximizing one’s potential. But the ironic quality of the second one provides more ground for analysis and application, because not at every instance will a person be presented with two options that demonstrate extreme differences; most of the time, the choices are equally viable and attractive. To choose one would open the idea of wondering how things would have been with the other, and this sometimes results in regret—specially if the outcome of the choice made is not to one’s liking.
Between the two versions, the second one maintains more connection with reality, and not just a good concept to keep in mind. Ultimately, it is Frost’s poetic success in presenting the idea of choice that rings true, whether or not both interpretations were as he expected.