Robert Frost ranks as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. His poetry is deceptively easy to read, yet most of his verse has more than one level of understanding. Frost believed that poetry should be written in a traditional way but with a new approach. One of the most recognized poems in America literature is “The Road Not Taken.” Despite the familiarity with the poem, its meaning is often misconstrued.
The poem must be read on two levels to obtain the true sense of the poem: the literal and figurative.
Literally, the speaker finds himself in a wood on an autumn morning. Facing him is a fork in the road. Wishing that he could travel both, he must choose one. He initially describes the chosen road as the fairest and least traveled.
Later, the speaker notes that both roads were about the same. In fact, in the third stanza, he calls the equal. Hoping that one day he will return and go down the other road, he realizes that this is unlikely.
The last stanza brings the meaning of the poem full circle. Later, in the man’s life, he will be telling this story to someone. It could be his children or grandchildren. When he tells it, he will sigh. A sigh usually means a note of regret or longing, so possibly the road he chose was not the best one for him. His story will be about the two roads that met and separated. He took the one less traveled and that made a transformation in his life.
The other interpretation is figurative. Consider the title. The poem is not entitled “The Road Less Traveled.” It is not about the path that he chose to follow; rather, it is the one that the man sighs about when he tells it in the future. This changes the meaning of the poem entirely.
The entire poem is a metaphor for the journey that a man travels in his life, and the one path that he did not choose which haunts him for the rest of his life.
What are the symbols in this interpretation?
- The woods—the man’s life
- The roads-the path or journey that he takes
- The leaves and bushes and underbrush—the aspects of life that deter or help people and the unknown in life that cannot be predetermined
- The road chosen—the choices that a person makes in his life
- The other road--The hope that if life is not working, one can start over again
- The sigh—the twinge of regret for the decisions that have been made
In the metaphorical poem, a person has a decision to make between two alternatives. It could refer to college, a marriage, an education, a job choice, a divorce. Whatever the topic, a decision must be made.
How does one decide on which way to go? A person must look beneath the surface [the underbrush] to see what is ahead, what are the possibilities, and what are the requirements.
…long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it been in the undergrowth;
Then took the other , as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim…
Even after doing the prerequisites, there is no assurance that the choice will be the right one. There are few times in life when one is absolutely positive about something. After the choice is made, the person must travel the path that he has chosen.
Later in life, he may look back on his choice and wish that he had made a different decision. What he knows for sure is that he selected a path to follow in his journey and that made his life tremendously diverse.