What is the structure of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" and how does that structure contribute to the poem's effectiveness?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The structure of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” contributes to the poem’s effectiveness in a number of ways, including the following:

  • The first two words of the poem – “Two roads” – introduce its key concern and central image.
  • The first three lines of the poem immediately raise the central thematic issue of the work:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood . . .

Frost does not lead up to this theme in any especially understated way. Instead, he announces it quite explicitly right at the beginning of the poem and thus, in a sense, puts the reader in the speaker’s shoes.  Just as the speaker cannot imagine how it might be possible to travel two roads at once, neither can we.

  • Right from the start, it seems clear that the two roads are metaphorical – that they stand for something in addition to roads. No one would seriously wonder how he could walk down two literal roads at once, and so the roads here must be somewhat symbolic. Thus the poem almost at once begins to make the reader think and ponder.
  • Frost emphasizes three times in the opening stanza (through three uses of the word “I”) the particular perspective of the poem’s speaker.  The speaker is a specific person, not a disembodied omniscient voice. Indeed, the lack of omniscience is central to the meaning of this poem. The speaker does not pretend to know everything. He is a single individual, like each of the poem’s readers.
  • One of the most masterful moments of the poem is the abruptness and suddenness of the first half of line six.  That half-line catches us immediately by surprise. We had been given no reason to think that the speaker was about to make a sudden choice, but a sudden choice is precisely what he does make.
  • The second stanza seems deliberately puzzling in its structure. At first the speaker suggests that one road is more heavily worn down by foot-traffic than the other, but by the end of the stanza he suggests that such traffic “Had worn them really about the same.” By structuring the stanza this way, and by delaying this crucial remark until the very end of the stanza, Frost creates another sense of surprise and contributes a strong element of ambiguity to the poem.
  • Stanza three is also structured by a kind of give-and-take pattern: first the speaker announces his plan to come back to this fork in the road, but then he says he “doubted if I should ever come back” (15).  The structure of the poem thus presents a kind of “see saw” motion: assertions are made and then retracted or qualified. Just as the poem presents two roads as its key images, so the poem itself is composed in such a way as to make the speaker seem ambivalent, hesitant, and indecisive.
  • Finally, even the final stanza raises more questions than it answers. It is structured in such a way (with the key line the final line) that it leaves us uncertain about the speaker’s attitude toward the choice he has made. In a sense, the poem brings us to an interpretive fork in the road: is he satisfied with his choice, or does he regret it? He doesn’t explicitly say; instead he leaves us hanging.

Although the rhyme-scheme of the poem is completely predictable, and although the meter of the poem contains no spectacular effects, other aspects of the poem's structure are surprising and intriguing.