person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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What are the modernist features in Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken"? Why does the poem belong to the modernist period?

The modernist features in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” are individualism and symbolism. Modernist poetry is a style that aims to break away from traditional forms. Although Frost includes some classical elements in his poem, he does modify traditional beliefs by using symbolism to create ambiguity and by placing more significance on the individual than society.

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Although Robert Frost is often characterized as an American modernist poet, that label is somewhat of a misnomer. His poetry frequently contains traditional elements such as meter and rhyme rather than modernist free verse. “The Road Not Taken” falls into this category with its rhyme scheme:

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

Nevertheless, “The Road Not Taken” contains modernist features as well. The combination of modern and traditional forms is a style that modifies and strays from the usual poetic forms of the early twentieth century. Such experimentation fits the modernist mold.

Modernist poets are engaged with their society and its issues. However, they infuse a sense of individualism into their writing. They believe the individual is a more interesting subject than society, so, using simple sentences, they emphasize the dilemmas and moral worth of the individual in their poems. For example, in “The Road Not Taken,” Frost focuses on the narrator’s nostalgic regrets over the possibilities that existed in his past:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Frost also employs symbolism, which is characteristic of the Modernist period. A symbol is generally defined as something that means more than what it purports to be. In “The Road Not Taken,” the most significant example is the narrator’s choice of roads as a representation of choices everyone makes in life between equally attractive alternatives. By using this symbol, the poet intentionally creates an ambiguity, which is another element of Modernist writing:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The reader is left pondering what the difference would have been had the speaker opted for the other road. Frost infuses a kind of riddle into the poem through his symbolism. Symbolism was not a new concept in literature, but the manner in which the poet used the symbol to establish the riddle was innovative.

In this poem, Frost’s emphasis is clearly on the mindset of the individual facing life’s dilemmas and regrets. There is no direct criticism of societal ills that might have caused those regrets. The symbolism he uses to construct the poem’s ambiguity coupled with the concept of individualism justifies classifying “The Road Not Taken” as belonging to the Modernist period.

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Robert Frost's poems are an interesting blend of traditional forms and Modernist techniques and thought. Although Frost's poetry often makes use of traditional rhythm, meter, and rhyme schemes, Ezra Pound, the twentieth century's foremost proponent of Modernist poetry, found Frost's poetry intriguing. He helped Frost launch his career as a writer.

In "The Road Not Taken," the two most obvious indicators of Modernism are its rhythm and its ambiguity. Although the poem has definite rhythmic qualities, a scansion of the poem shows that it doesn't conform precisely to any standard rhythm. Lines combine anapests with iambs and trochees. What results is an approximation of the rhythms of natural speech that is nevertheless engaging and pleasing. This is a Modernist technique.

Second, the ambiguity of the poem represents Modernism well. Modernists wanted to break with Romantic and Victorian cliches, norms, and values. A sense of iconoclasm—of breaking down the sacred—was common. This poem displays ambiguity and sardonic rejection of the "ideal path." Although the speaker first says one path is less worn than the other, he later recants and says they are about equally worn. Later, he says he took "the road less traveled by." The final stanza describes a "sigh" of recollection and asserts that the speaker's decision "has made all the difference." Readers don't know whether that sigh is one of satisfaction or of regret, nor do they know whether the difference was positive or negative. The subjective nature of the poem that leaves it open to various interpretations is another characteristic of Modernism.

Frost is considered a Modernist despite his use of more traditionally formatted verse. This poem shows two of his hallmarks as a Modernist: the rhythms of natural speech and subjectivity.

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Although "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost was written during the same time period as the modernist poems of Pound and Eliot, Frost himself was not a modernist, being more closely allied to the distinctly anti-modernist Georgian poets. In fact, one could even argue that the well-travelled poetic road Frost chose not to take was that of modernism.

Let us examine the second stanza:

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 poem is written in relatively regular iambic tetrameter lines with frequent anapaestic substitutions, in simple, almost Wordsworthian language. It uses a regular ABAAB rhyme scheme, with traditional full strong rhymes rather than half-rhymes. The lines are mainly end-stopped. There are no obscure allusions, elliptical references, invocations of major philosophical or artistic theories, portrayals of the fragmentation of the modern world and sensibility. The narrator is reliable, etc.

It's important to realize that not everyone born in the same period has the same beliefs or artistic sensibilities. Although the modernists were a very important group of early twentieth-century writers and artists, not all writers alive in the period were modernists. Many, like Frost, the southern Fugitive poets, and the British Georgians disliked international modernism and focused more on developing traditional verse rooted in a regional sensibility.

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