Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken

You know the poem.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This poem has spread through movies, ads, memes, hell it’s probably on some fortune cookie message somewhere. It’s become a testament to blazing your own future, asserting your own individuality, bucking the status quo and becoming your best self. This poem serves as inspiration to probably millions. At least these last three lines do. Too bad no one reads the entire poem. Because if they did, they’d realize that this poem has actually become one of the best jokes ever played on the English-speaking public. And if you use this poem as inspiration to live an amazingly unique life, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the joke’s on you.

Let’s actually read the WHOLE thing.

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.

Do you get the joke yet?

It hinges on the concept of the speaker taking the road less traveled. Yet read the descriptions of the two roads. They’re the same. The first stanza describes our speaker walking through the woods and coming to a fork in the road. He looks down one path until it bends and he can’t see any farther. Then he decides the second path is better because it’s been less traveled.

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

But he instantly takes this statement back in the next four lines.

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.

So how does our speaker get from acknowledging that the two roads are pretty much the same, yet at the end talks about how much of a difference it’s made by taking the one that is less traveled? It’s called a post hoc rationalization. We rationalize all sorts of things. Sometimes we convince ourselves that bad decisions were really good ones at the time we made them with the information we had. Other times, we’ll come up with a better reason later and pretend that was our rationale from the beginning. Sometimes we just don’t want to admit that our actions were based on a whim and concoct a reason after the fact. It’s much more comforting to think we’re in control and mapping out our futures. But in this case, Frost highlights another way we rationalize things: we crave meaning in our lives and often attempt to turn the trivial into the triumphant. We seldom realize we do this. But by giving us the before and after of the speaker’s decision, Frost is able to show us this rationalization process, and he does so in a masterful way.

Structurally we have a consistent rhyme pattern of ABAAB and each line consists of four rhythmic feet. But despite the regular cadence, this consistency is thrown off kilter by the use of irregularly added anapests within mostly iambs. A scansion for the first stanza is below. The accented syllables are bolded with the iambs in blue and the anapests in red.

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;

As you can see we have just enough consistency to suggest a pattern, but it’s never truly realized.

Also note that the first two-and-a-half stanzas are actually one long compound sentence consisting of three independent clauses supported by a slew of parentheticals and drawn out adverbial phrases. Your high school English teacher would call this a run-on sentence. Combine this irregular rhythm and meandering syntax with the constant thought reversals, and you have the perfectly presented, disjointed thoughts of a dithering speaker.

Now contrast this with the ending everyone loves to quote. The speaker tells us how important his decision was, yet he’s actually quite indecisive. This also helps explain the title. The decision the speaker sees as instrumental in his life is about which road he took, but the title focuses our attention on the one he didn’t. There’s a constant back and forth (the rhyme scheme helps accentuate this feeling), the same way he tries to look down one path then the other, and later he also looks both forward and backward in time. It reminds me of a couple lines from Prufrock by T. S. Eliot: In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

But it’s in the shifting tone that we can see Frost is presenting a speaker that’s meant to be laughed at. While the speaker is hemming and hawing about the path, he makes one definitive statement: And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler… This is an unimportant truism, but the speaker presents it as some profound truth that isn’t easily grasped by a four-year-old. (You mean you can’t split your body and take two paths at the same time? Really. You don’t say!) But the real tonal shift in the poem comes in the third line of the third stanza with Oh, I kept the first for another day! Here we switch from the largely descriptive language of the paths to a grandiose wistfulness. Ironically, it’s at this point when the speaker reveals his decision of which path to take by focusing on the other one. Indeed, we’re not even told exactly what path he’s chosen, which only highlights the sameness of the paths and how trivial this decision really was. Yet it’s at this point where the speaker begins to present this decision as important, while lamenting that he’ll probably never get the chance to see the results of deciding the other way.

The next two lines take this wistfulness into the realm of true hyperbole.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The speaker tell us (with such a deep sigh) that this decision will have effects not only on his future life but for ages and ages, long past even his own lifetime. This level of melodrama would choke a daytime soap opera. Is anyone else reminded of someone who’s smoked too much pot and, while gazing at his midsection, ponders the profundity of an infinitely deep navel?

So now that we’ve reached the last three lines that everyone is so fond of, we have a completely different context in which to understand them, by which I mean a context. A dithering speaker chooses between two equal options with all the significance of flipping a coin. But now, one path is the better one, the one less traveled. And now it makes a difference. Interesting that we’re never told what that difference is. If the difference is so important, you’d think the speaker would focus on that instead. But this would get in the way of the cosmic moment.

Now do you get the joke? This poem is making fun of the type of people who think they’re making a heroic decision when pondering what color socks to wear. Anyone who takes only the one small part of this poem and magnifies it into a grand statement on striking out on your own unique path are doing the same thing as the speaker. These are the people that Frost is mocking, and they don’t even realize it.

Look. There is a serious side to this poem. We’ve all sat and wondered how our lives would be different if we had made some alternate decision. We’ve all been paralyzed with indecision at times worrying about which is the right path to take. But the truth is that sometimes these decisions really don’t amount to much. Not everything is a sign from the universe. Many of our actions are completely inconsequential. And we can laugh at that. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing how silly we can be. But sometimes we need someone else to point out those moments to us. And this poem works wonders toward that end. And if you can get over yourself for a moment, you’ll see that what we really have here, despite the popular wishes, is a poem that shows us a person trying to turn the mundane into the monumental. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the speaker succeeded or not. But if you think he did, I bet Mr. Frost is chuckling in his grave. I am too (not in my grave, of course). But we’re laughing with you not at you. Really. I swear. You might as well share a laugh with us.

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