The first poem in Frost’s book Mountain Interval, “The Road Not Taken,” has long been a popular favorite. Like many of his poems, it seems simple, but it is not exactly straightforward, and even perceptive readers have disagreed considerably over its best interpretation. It looks like a personal poem about a decision of vast importance, but there is evidence to the contrary both inside and outside the poem. Frost has created a richly mysterious reading experience out of a marvelous economy of means.
The first significant thing about “The Road Not Taken” is its title, which presumably refers to an unexercised option, something about which the speaker can only speculate. The traveler comes to a fork in a road through a “yellow wood” and wishes he could somehow manage to “travel both” routes; he rejects that aspiration as impractical, however, at least for the day at hand. The road he selects is “the one less traveled by,” suggesting the decision of an individualist, someone little inclined to follow the crowd. Almost immediately, however, he seems to contradict his own judgment: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same.” The poet appears to imply that the decision is based on evidence that is, or comes close to being, an illusion.
The contradictions continue. He decides to save the first, (perhaps) more traveled route for another day but then confesses that he does not think it probable that he will return, implying that this seemingly casual and inconsequential choice is really likely to be crucial—one of the choices of life that involve commitment or lead to the necessity of other choices that will divert the traveler forever from the original stopping place. In the final stanza, the traveler says that he will be “telling this with a sigh,” which may connote regret. His choice, in any event, “has made all the difference.” The tone of this stanza, coupled with the title, strongly suggests that the traveler, if not regretting his choice, at least laments the possibilities that the need to make a choice leave unfulfilled.
Has Frost in mind a particular and irrevocable choice of his own, and if so, what feeling, in this poem of mixed feelings, should be regarded as dominant? There is no way of identifying such a specific decision from the evidence of the poem itself. Although a prejudice exists in favor of identifying the “I” of the poem with the author in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the speaker may not be Frost at all. On more than one occasion the poet claimed that this poem was about his friend Edward Thomas, a man inclined to indecisiveness out of a strong—and, as Frost thought, amusing—habit of dwelling on the irrevocability of decisions. If so, the reference in the poem’s final stanza to “telling” of the experience “with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” might be read not only as the boast of Robert Frost, who “tells” it as long as people read the poem, but also as a perpetual revelation of Thomas, also a fine poet.
What is clear is that the speaker is, at least, a person like Thomas in some respects (though there may well be some of Frost in him also). Critics of this poem are likely always to argue whether it is an affirmation of the crucial nature of the choices people must make on the road of life or a gentle satire on the sort of temperament that always insists on struggling with such choices. The extent of the poet’s sympathy with the traveler also remains an open question.
Frost composed this poem in four five-line stanzas with only two end rhymes in each stanza (abaab). The flexible iambic meter has four strong beats to the line. Of the technical achievements in “The Road Not Taken,” one in particular shows Frost’s skill at enforcing meaning through form. The poem ends:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
The indecision of the speaker—his divided state of mind—is heightened by the repetition of “I,” split by the line division and emphasized by the rhyme and pause. It is an effect possible only in a rhymed and metrical poem—and thus a good argument for the continuing viability of traditional forms.