The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Road Not Taken” is one of Robert Frost’s most familiar and most popular poems. It is made up of four stanzas of five lines each, and each line has between eight and ten syllables in a roughly iambic rhythm; the lines in each stanza rhyme in an abaab pattern. The popularity of the poem is largely a result of the simplicity of its symbolism: The speaker must choose between diverging paths in a wood, and he sees that choice as a metaphor for choosing between different directions in life. Nevertheless, for such a seemingly simple poem, it has been subject to very different interpretations of how the speaker feels about his situation and how the reader is to view the speaker. In 1961, Frost himself commented that “The Road Not Taken” is “a tricky poem, very tricky.”
Frost wrote the poem in the first person, which raises the question of whether the speaker is the poet himself or a persona, a character created for the purposes of the poem. According to the Lawrance Thompson biography, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph (1971), Frost would often introduce the poem in public readings by saying that the speaker was based on his Welsh friend Edward Thomas. In Frost’s words, Thomas was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.”
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker, while walking on an autumn day in a forest where the leaves have changed to yellow, must choose between...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In his essay “The Constant Symbol,” Frost defined poetry with an interesting series of phrases. Poetry, he wrote, is chiefly “metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority.” His achievement in the poem “The Road Not Taken” is to bring these different uses of metaphor into play in a delightfully ironic balancing act. That is to say, the speaker solemnly uses the metaphor of the two roads to say one thing, while Frost humorously uses the speaker as a metaphor to say something very different.
The speaker is a solemn person who earnestly believes in metaphor as a way of “saying one thing in terms of another.” The speaker uses the details, the “terms,” of a situation in nature to “say” something about himself and his life: that he has difficulty making a choice and that he is regretfully certain that he will eventually be unhappy with the choice that he does make. When he first considers the two roads, he sees one as more difficult, perhaps even a bit menacing (“it bent in the undergrowth”), and the other as being more pleasant (“it was grassy and wanted wear”). Even in taking the second path, though, he reconsiders and sees them both as equally worn and equally covered with leaves. Changing his mind again, he believes that in the future he will look back, realize that he did take the “less traveled” road after all, but regret “with a sigh” that that...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.