The reason Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” has been the subject of study and critical analysis since its publication in 1920 is simple: it has been traditionally misunderstood by many readers and critics for a hundred years. Ample evidence exists to show that Frost wrote this poem as a mild spoof of his friend Edward Thomas, with whom he often walked through the woods in England. The poem is not about the speaker being pleased with his choice; it is instead about what did not happen.
Thomas was one of many people who have regrets about the things they believe they have missed in life. Such people fail to enjoy the roads they do take, because they focus their entire lives on what they might have done instead. Frost’s poem tells the story of what many people, particularly his friend, do not do in life.
Frost did not envision the speaker of this poem to be himself, but rather his friend Thomas. Ironically, the poem that the poet envisioned to be a lighthearted jab at his friend has now been deeply and seriously interpreted for a century.
While there are a myriad of interpretations of “The Road Not Taken,” the poem does contain some undeniable references that demonstrate the speaker’s displeasure with his choice. In the first stanza of this short work, the speaker says:
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 ...
The meaning is clear. Since the traveler expresses sorrow over his inability to walk both paths, he is not pleased.
In stanza 2, the speaker once again expresses doubt in his choice of roads. He acknowledges that his initial observation confirmed that both choices were relatively the same from his vantage point, but the one he ultimately took had “perhaps the better claim.”
Stanza 3 is particularly revealing. The speaker had convinced himself that he would eventually take the other road at a later date, but realized this would never be, because life does not work that way. People cannot go back to gain the experiences they pass up in life:
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Finally, the speaker reveals his disappointment with the selected path through the woods:
I shall be telling this with a sigh ...
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Frost intentionally leaves the last stanza ambiguous. The speaker sighs with disappointment, but it is never revealed whether “the difference” led to a good or bad result. The purpose is to show that human beings have free will and whatever path individuals choose is the right one and is meant to be enjoyed, not foolishly regretted while never knowing what the alternative would have provided.