person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost
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Where did the two roads diverge?

In "The Road Not Taken," the two roads diverge in a forest in autumn, as they are covered in leaves. This means that the poem takes place in some northern region with deciduous trees. Figuratively, the roads represent a choice, and the roads could diverge anywhere the youthful speaker must make a choice that feels significant to him.

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The two roads are not real roads but are a metaphor for a problem the speaker, presumably Robert Frost himself, encountered at a certain stage in his life. He was traveling, metaphorically, on a single road which diverged in a "yellow wood." He had to choose one road or the other. This certainly sounds like a career choice. Frost obviously wanted to be a poet. But this is an extremely precarious, if not impossible, career. Dante uses a metaphor similar to Frost's in the opening lines of his Inferno.

IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: 

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la dirrita via era smarrita.

It would seem that Frost is writing about having to make a choice, common enough for aspiring artists of all kinds, of living very frugally and devoting his life to his poetry. What is unusual about the metaphor of the roads diverging is that they form a single image that dominates most of the entire poem. The metaphor is so dominant that it may persuade the reader that it is a real fork in a real wood--which it is not.

Frost chose to take the "road" which symbolized a life of simplicity and austerity. We can see in many of his most famous poems that he lived close to nature and did a lot of work with his own hands. He wrote about the "Thoreauvian" kind of life he had to lead in order to be free to devote most of his time to his poetry. This can be seen in poems like "Mending Wall" and "Two Tramps In Mud Time." In the last stanza of "The Road Not Taken," Frost seems to be wondering whether all his sacrifices were worth it. But that could have been the case regardless of which of the two roads he had chosen. 

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The speaker of this poem stands in a "yellow wood" as he faces a fork in his path. We thus know that the setting is autumn, a time of gorgeous natural changes, a signal that the high sun and glorious greenery of summer has come to a close. In this moment and underneath this yellow canopy, the speaker realizes that the two roads in front of him lead to two different paths, and he will never know the outcome of the road he didn't take. The choice is difficult, and he considers how many others have taken each of the roads in front of him as well as how far he can see down each road in front of him. He tries to predict the outcomes of each path as well as which path might have the "better claim."

Metaphorically, the speaker is standing at a crossroads in life. The roads diverge from this point of decision, and the speaker realizes that the path he takes will lead him to an outcome that is unique to that particular choice. Life has a way of one path leading to the next, each "way leads on to way," and it is impossible to undo or redo life's choices. Thus, life is an infinite series of these forks in the road, some which are easy to recognize as major decisions and others which seem fairly insignificant. Yet each one of these choices changes the eventual trajectory under that constant yellow canopy along the roads of life.

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As the fork in the road is symbolic of a choice that the speaker must make, the divergence of the two roads from the one can be read both literally and figuratively. Literally, the road splits into two "in a yellow wood," probably a forest in the fall, as this is when the leaves would be yellow in color as well as falling to cover the two distinct paths.

The speaker says that both roads "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black" on that particular morning, and so we are given to understand that autumn has arrived. This also tells us that the roads are located in a climate that experiences such an autumn, a climate that has plentiful deciduous trees, perhaps New England or some other northern state, or any other such place. We are not, it seems, in a rainforest, desert, or tundra.

Figuratively speaking, the two roads represent a choice—any choice—that the speaker must make, and this decision could take place some time, any time it seems, in the speaker's adult life. The speaker seems relatively young and strong to be adventuring in the woods by himself, and he also considers how he plans to tell the story of this moment "ages and ages hence." This shows us that he plans to live for a great many more years, which must make him fairly young now.

Consider the types of choices young adults have to make. To marry or not? To have children or not? When? What career to choose? To live near family or independently? Each decision will lead to another and another, just as "way leads on to way" when we take a road, which leads to another and another. We can never go back and choose differently, as though we've not already chosen. So, figuratively, the roads diverge wherever the speaker must make such a choice.

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In "The Road Not Taken," the road diverged or split to go in two different directions in a yellow wood. That the wood is yellow suggests the walk took place in fall, when the leaves on the trees had turned color. We can also picture the road as a path in the woods, an idea reinforced when the narrator notes that one fork was grassy, although both forks were more or less equally worn.

Therefore, we know the narrator is in a rural, wooded setting, far from major roads or highways. There aren't going to be any trucks nor cars barreling down on him in this quiet place where he is pondering which way to turn.

Although we associate Frost with New England and think of him as an iconic American poet, which he was, this poem was written when he was living in England early in his career. Thus, in the most general sense, the road he travels on could be diverging in England.

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According to the poem, the "roads diverged in a yellow wood." It's impossible to pinpoint the exact location of these woods from a reading of the text. Judging by the poet's life, however, it's more than likely they were the woods outside Dymock in Gloucestershire, England. Frost lived there in 1915 and 1916, becoming an integral part of the group loosely referred to as the Dymock Poets. Another of these poets, and a close friend of Frost's, was Edward Thomas, who suffered from depression and often had trouble making important decisions. Frost and Thomas would often walk among the woods near Dymock. Some have surmised that the poem is simply Frost's way of making fun of his friend's ambivalence. Unfortunately, upon reading the poem, Thomas made the decision to enlist in the British Army, then fighting the Germans during World War I. Thomas was killed in action not long after arriving in France in 1917.

It's also entirely possible that Frost had no particular place in mind when he wrote the poem and that these woods are simply figurative. The poem is an extended metaphor about an important decision in a person's life such as a career choice or a life changing event. The divergence in the road is symbolic of two separate paths in life. Frost may have been referring to his own decision to lead a literary life. In any case, it is assumed that the reader will relate to the poem because of its universal theme.

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