Robert Frost's poem “The Road Not Taken” begins with the line “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” The line sets the scene for the speaker's need to make a choice, to take one path over another, and to select a road that will lead him away from this moment and on to the rest of his life. He will likely never return to this spot, he says later in the poem, so the choice is permanent.
But readers may wonder why Frost chooses a “yellow wood” as his setting. This one little phrase carries a great depth of symbolism and meaning. First, this is an autumn scene, which suggests that the speaker may be in the autumn of his life. He has come a long way already, choosing many different paths and gaining wisdom from his choices, even though he may have made some mistakes. He is an experienced traveler, so he knows that he must make decisions, and he realizes that these decisions have consequences. He also knows that he will not get a chance to make the same choice again.
That said, though, this “yellow wood” is a place of beauty. Imagine the golden trees of autumn and how the sun shines through them, making the whole forest glow. The traveler wants to take both paths to prolong his experience of this beauty, yet he cannot. Again, he must choose one experience over another—both equally lovely on a crisp autumn day yet one pursued and one rejected. We, too, must select some experiences over others, even though they both present the possibility for beauty and joy.
The poet's choice of “yellow” is significant as well. Yellow is the color of energy and happiness. It is associated with light, joy, and warmth, as well as intellect and knowledge. Even though the speaker may be in the autumn of his life, he is still filled with energy. He is still a traveler with places to go and experiences to relish. He can still be happy, joyful, and delighted with his life. He can still be enlightened by his travels and grow in knowledge and wisdom.
Yet the speaker must travel through a wood. While a forest is certainly a place of beauty, and this yellow wood is probably well-lit as the sun shines on its leaves, a wood is still a place of mystery and trial. A forest is a dense, unknown spot, filled with potential dangers even in the midst of its beauty. No one entering a forest quite knows for sure what he or she will encounter. The journey is unknown. The speaker in this poem also does not know where his travels will take him. His path remains a mystery and may be filled with difficulties as well as beauty and joy. This is, after all, exactly what life is like.