Robert Frost was a 20th-century American poet who was well-known for his realistic portrayal of nature and country life. His poem “The Road not Taken,” published in 1916, is one of his masterpieces, and it describes the nature of choices one makes in life. The poem compares a person’s life choices with two diverging roads in the woods and explains how choosing the road less traveled makes a difference.
Most of the poems written by Robert Frost reflect social and philosophical themes such as individualism, nature, isolation, morality, the quest for self-knowledge, and everyday struggles. Similarly, “The Road not Taken” has blended images from life and nature to explain a person’s dilemma when they have to take a crucial turn in his/her life. The poem subtly delights as well as indulges the reader in an inquiry.
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.
The poem is set on an autumn evening. The poetic persona is walking through the woods, whose leaves have turned yellow and began to fall. At some point in his walk, he sees a road diverging into two. The speaker feels sorry as he cannot travel two roads simultaneously and has to choose one among the two roads. So, the speaker stood staring at the road for a long time and tried to see where the paths lead. He had to try hard to see through the road as it was bending, and the trees were blocking the view.
After a certain amount of contemplation, the speaker chooses the grassy path that is less worn out. According to the speaker, this path was more appealing and had a better claim. However, as he moved on, he understood that the two roads were worn out equally.
He recalls the paths as he saw them in the morning. He states that both the roads were filled with leaves and had not turned black. It was because the people did not walk over it. The speaker also says that he has kept aside the first road to be traveled some other day. Nevertheless, there is a contradiction in the next line as the speaker says that a return to the first road is least probable as roads give way to another.
In the final stanza, the speaker describes the future. He says that he might think about this choice with a sigh in his life. He would also exclaim that his decision to choose the road less traveled caused the differences in his life.
The poem “The Road not Taken,” published in the poetry collection Mountain Interval, received much critical attention due to its ambiguous and ironic nature. Though overtly, the poem appears to guide a person about making life choices, this impression given in it is ironic. It subtly presents that whichever path one chooses, they will miss something on the other. Even in life, when we choose between two things, we ought to miss something even if we feel that our decision is the best. Also, it depicts that the results of our choices can have positive or negative overtones.
Critics have made varying comments upon the title of the poem as well. The poem’s primary title was “Two Roads,” and later, Frost changed it to “The Road not Taken.” Frost wrote the poem as a joke to his friend Edward Thomas, who often regretted his choices. Frost wrote this poem based on one of their walks in which Thomas lamented not choosing the other path. Taking this into account, some critics claim that Frost is referring to the road he never tried. However, some other critics equate the title with the “road less traveled by” mentioned in the poem’s final stanza. They claim that Frost is referring to the road that is not usually taken by people. He gives importance to free-will and determination. In this case, the title seems to urge people to choose paths different from the crowd.
Similarly, the term “sigh” used in the final stanza of the poem is read in multiple ways. The sigh in the poem is considered a sigh of relief and a sigh of regret. The speaker is happy about choosing the road less traveled by as it gave him mesmerizing experiences, or in remorse as his decision was fatal.
The possibility of reading the title and the poem in these two ways can also be connected with the image of the diverging roads. Like the two roads moving in different directions, the poem presents two contrasting ideas within it. On the one hand, it represents free will and agency, and on the other hand, it describes life itself. The unpredictable nature of life and the twists and turns it can have is well portrayed in the poem.
The metaphor of the road signifies even more. In Frost’s poem, the roads which are manmade diverging in the woods also stand as a collective of nature and civilization. Though the speaker tries to be in harmony with nature, he needs human pathways to do so. Also, we can read the two roads in connection with the process of writing itself. An author always tries to be different from the writings of his predecessors. At some point, every writer recognizes that he has chosen a path already used by many. As Eliot states in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” ‘a thorough understanding of the writing tradition is also essential in producing good writing.’
We can read the poem in connection with the life of Robert Frost. Other than its link with his walk with Edward Thomas, Frost’s use of the “autumn woods” is associated with his middle age when Frost was in England. It suggests the beginning of the waning years of his life. Some also associate the poem with his choice not to join the British army. His friend Edward who joined the army died soon after. It was his decision not to choose the path that made his life different.
Robert Frost was recognized as a poet with respect for nature. Nature becomes the backdrop for almost all his poems. An in-depth look into Frost’s poems depicts that Frost has used nature to render all kinds of human emotions and human life as such. He does not idealize or glorify it. Frost views nature from a realistic perspective. He primarily focuses on man’s interaction with nature. The poem “The Road not Taken” is set in the woods with yellow leaves where the speaker goes for a walk. Though the poem was written as a joke to his friend Edward Thomas, Frost has not compromised on adding subtle beauty of nature. Frost has perfectly framed the changing landscape and the season. The autumn season and the journey through the woods complement the poem’s crude tone and intensify its meaning.
The metaphor of the road is crucial too. It marks the meeting point of man and nature. Frost’s road metaphor is critical as it perfectly matches the choices we make in life. It also represents life itself. Like the roads, life too is unpredictable and has twists, turns, ups, and downs.
The poem also subtly comments on the complexity and unpredictability of nature through the metaphor of the road. The bending nature and the invisibility of the path mentioned in the poem is an intricate representation of the figurative and literal density of the woods. It also demonstrates how humans will never be able to comprehend nature and its modalities.
The changes caused to nature by human interaction are also subtly presented in the poem. The leaves turning black signify how human interaction interrupts nature. One also read the speaker’s choice to go through the path less traveled as his preference for a world less altered by humans.
The Dilemma of Choice
In the poem “The Road Not Taken,” the speaker describes one of his walks through the woods where he had to choose between two roads. The choice and the factors affecting it are presented as a metaphor for the choices one makes in life. The poem portrays the dilemma of making taking a decision and the unpredictability of its outcome. As depicted in the poem, people get confused when they are about to make a life-changing choice. Like the speaker, we would observe the condition, contemplate future possibilities, and arrive at some appealing hypothesis. However, most of us would not dare to choose a daring path as the speaker did. The speaker himself warns you about this decision. Though he says that the choice to take the road less traveled made his life different, it is presented ironically. He did not refer to whether the difference was promising or fatal. The sigh mentioned in the final stanza of the poem could be that of relief or regret.
The speaker also makes it clear that every choice has the risk of losing something. As mentioned in the poem, one cannot travel two the two roads at the same time. We have to leave one and bear the loss of its experiences. Like everyone else, the primary emotion that comes to the speaker at this condition is sorrow, as it is impossible to travel through the two roads at the same time.
Also, how much ever we try, it is impossible to determine the result of our choice. The uncertainty adds to our dilemma. Even after making a choice, the predicament does not end until we get the outcome. Humans often tend to regret the choices they make and to satisfy themselves as they lay down excuses or reasons that we know are least probable. In the poem, the speaker does this by announcing that he is just saving “the first [road] for another day!”. In the next line, he represents the fact that there is no possibility of returning as roads lead to other roads. Likewise, choices change our lives entirely so that we would never be able to return to the turn again. Amidst all the dilemmas, we can be sure that the choice we make will result in “all the difference” in our life.
Frost’s Poetic Philosophy
According to Frost, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” His poems, especially “The Road not Taken,” “Stopping by the Woods in a Snowy Evening,” try to provide some valuable thought to humanity. His poems are set in a rural background and emphasize the interaction between man and nature. Similarly, the poem “The Road not Taken” begins in a delightful narration of a walk through the woods in the autumn. The leaves have turned yellow and have fallen. The path is covered with leaves. The poem is very light until the speaker sees two roads diverging in the forest. He contemplates which path he should choose, and from this point on, the poem gains momentum. It then subtly talks about the deeper realities of life and the choices we make.
The poem comments that people make decisions by judging life from what they see. Often people look more in-depth into realities. The speaker of the poem, too, chooses a road that looks appealing. He only looks at the road from where he stands. The poem ends by suggesting that one must also be ready to face the consequences of one’s decision. It can also be read as motivating people to imbibe free will and agency and choose their own path rather than choosing the path set before them by others. Thus, by taking the readers through a walk in the woods, Frost explores philosophical ideas that connect with one’s life and choices. Frost provides moral guidance on things to be kept in mind before making significant decisions in life.
The poem “The Road Not Taken,” describes the choices one has in life using the metaphor of the road. During one of his walks in the woods, the speaker sees two roads diverging and had to select one over the other. One of the roads was worn out, and the other one was less worn. The speaker chose the less traveled road, which demonstrates his agency and individualism. Often people tend to conform to the norms and pathways set by others or society. Only a few dare to select the unconventional way. The speaker suggests that both ways are almost the same, but it is the choice that matters. The speaker chose the other path as he found it pleasing. So, the other path is all about one’s pleasure. As not many people have traveled through it, one must find one’s way and take up the risks alone.
The poem also suggests the possible consequences of this non-conformity towards the end. The speaker states that his choice to take the less-traveled path made “all the difference.” On the one hand, it can be read that the speaker’s decision made a positive difference, and on the other hand, it also brings in the possibility that the speaker is wrong. In both cases, the agency of making a choice is crucial. Even if a person chooses the conventional path, there are chances of failure. The poem emphasizes the effort taken from the part of the individual.
“The Road not Taken” is a lyric poem. The musical quality and the flow of the poem add its lyrical beauty. Frost has used a natural mode of narration, along with simple words and expressions in the poem. The poet gently begins the poem by recalling a past event. He describes the event, and towards, the end narrates a possible future. This movement of time in the poem is done very delicately. It allows the reader to flows through it as if in a story.
The poem has four stanzas with five lines each, and it follows an ABAAB rhyme scheme.
The poem has a natural and steady rhythm, and it is in a first-person narrative. The central metaphor in the poem is that of the road and the enjambments. It denotes the extension of one line to the next, used between lines add beauty to the metaphor of the road. The road is also given human quality using a technique called personification. There is also the presence of assonance in lines 6-12 of the poem. The repetition of the vowel /a:/ in the lines adds musicality to the poem.
The poem also provides a movie-like description of the speaker’s walk and the diverging roads. The visual images of the “yellow woods”, “undergrowth”, leaves and the roads match the complex theme of the poem. The rhythm of the poem flows in a very smooth manner as thought moves ahead.
Frost also uses epizeuxis in the final stanza. He repeats the word “I,” emphasizing the significance of the speaker. This highlights the speaker’s agency in deciding his path. The process of contemplation, the effort to make one’s choice, and individualism are portrayed through this repetition. This too can be read in multiple ways as the word “I” might be either reflecting the speaker’s pride or his loneliness due to the consequence of his choice.
Thus, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road not Taken” with its ironic yet philosophical ideas is one of his most acclaimed works. The poem is still widely read and anthologized worldwide. The style, simplicity, thought-provoking themes, and relatability with life heightens its aesthetic appeal.