How does the poet decide between roads in the poem, "The Road Not Taken"?

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Chase Burns eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Road Not Taken" is a poem commonly understood to be about a man who took the road less traveled in life and found this choice to be more rewarding. Many view the narrator as seeing two paths, one well-trodden and one dense and wild with growth. However, a close reading of this poem will show this to be incorrect.

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,
The earlier lines can be interpreted as suggesting there is a difference between the two paths, but the latter lines ("Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same") reveal this separation to be untrue. 

The Paris Review recently posted an article about the common misunderstanding of "The Road Not Taken." A quote is below:

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable. - The Paris Review (link attached)

The poem can be read as a commentary on how people craft the narratives of their lives. People are prone to believe their choices in life were the preferable choices, but this is often just nostalgia. At the end of the poem, the narrator says the path he chose made all the difference, but this is self-confirming. 

Of course, as The Paris Review article articulates, poems are not arguments, but rather they are things to be interpreted. The narrator in this poem decided his path almost at random, but in retrospect he believed that his path was the preferable one. 

Read the study guide:
The Road Not Taken

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