Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Road Not Taken” is an excellent example of what Frost meant by “the pleasure of ulteriority” in his poetry. That is, the poem offers an entertaining double perspective on the theme of making choices, with one perspective fairly obvious and the other more subtle.

Considered through the perspective of the speaker himself, “The Road Not Taken” is an entirely serious, even a sad poem. It expresses both the turmoil of making a choice and the depressing expectation that the choice he makes between seemingly equal options will turn out for the worse—is in fact going to make an even greater difference for the worse than seems possible when he makes the choice.

Considered from Frost’s perspective, on the other hand, “The Road Not Taken” is a humorous parody of the speaker’s portentous habits of mind. Frost’s 1931 essay “Education by Poetry” offers further clarification on this point. In it, he wrote that people need to understand that all metaphors are human constructs that “break down at some point”; people need to “know [a] metaphor in its strength and its weakness[h]ow far [one] may expect to ride it and when it may break down.” From this perspective, the main problem of the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” is that he tries to ride his metaphor too far and too hard. Although he sees it break down early in the poem (in that he actually cannot see any real difference between the two roads), the speaker persists in thinking that the road is “less traveled” in some way that he cannot see and that this difference will lead to dire consequences later on.

One other common interpretation of the poem deserves brief consideration: the view that the poem is a celebration of nonconformity, an exhortation to the reader to take the road “less traveled.” In this interpretation, the title is seen as referring to the road that the speaker does take (which is “the road not taken” by most other people), and the speaker is seen as ultimately exultant that he took the road “less traveled,” because it “has made all the difference” in enhancing his life. To consider the validity of this interpretation, one must put aside Frost’s stated intentions for the poem—an act that many critics consider sometimes justified because an author’s intentions cannot be seen as fully controlling the impression made by a literary work. Aside from the issue of Frost’s intentions, however, this interpretation still conflicts with many salient details in the poem. One problem with this view is that the speaker can hardly be praised as a strong nonconformist if in the middle of the poem he can see little difference between the paths, let alone vigorously choose the road “less traveled.” Another problem is that he imagines telling his story in the future with a “sigh,” an unlikely gesture for a vigorous champion of nonconformity.

In 1935, Frost wrote on the subject of style that “style is the way [a] man takes himself.If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” “The Road Not Taken” is a notable example of Frost’s own sophisticated style, of his ability to create ironic interplay between outer seriousness and inner humor.

Yet the humor of the poem also has its own serious side. This humor conveys more than merely the ridicule found in parody: It also expresses an implied corrective to the condition that it mocks. This condition is that the speaker sees the course and tone of his life as determined by forces beyond his range of vision and control. Frost implies that if the speaker were able to see himself with some humor, and if he were able to take more responsibility for his choices and attitude, he might find that he himself could make “all the difference” in his own life.