Why is "The Road Not Taken" called "America's Most Mis-Read Poem"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think people want to read this poem as a reinforcement that making the tough decisions and blazing one's own path leads to the best possible life. After all, the final lines conclude the poem this way:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And people get stuck on that idea. They want to believe that at the end of life, they will be able to reflect on the choices (or the metaphorical forks in the roads) they have experienced in life and be able to realize that the struggle was worth it—that the "less traveled by" paths of remaining true to oneself make "all the difference" in the end.
Sadly, that romanticized version of the poem isn't actually supported in the details.
In the first stanza, the speaker does come upon this place where a road splits, and he has to make a decision about which path to take. He looks down one road as far as he can see.
The second stanza notes that he takes the other road, which is fair and perhaps has better opportunities. He notes that this path is grassy and wants wear, meaning that this is the road less traveled. It isn't worn down by many footprints or horse trails or other means of travel.
And then he contradicts that very thought in the next two lines:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
So the path really isn't less traveled. In fact, the two paths are equally worn, which he emphasizes by starting the third stanza this way:
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
The paths appear, by all appearances, equal. They could each lead to similar possibilities, joy, or heartbreak. He really can't tell which path is the absolute best path to take but has to make a choice. He decides to take the second path, not the first one he saw, and he's really just going on a kind of gut instinct.
The poem, therefore, is not about choosing the less-traveled path or about how hard decisions lead to great contentment. It's really about having to make so many decisions in life without knowing if you're really doing the right thing. It's about looking back on life and all the "what-ifs" of the paths you didn't take. And it's about making peace with the fact that we each make the best decisions we can along the way, leading us to our eventual life's destination where we hopefully find happiness and satisfaction with how it all turns out.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Robert Frost’s rather straight-forward “The Road Not Taken” is notable for many things, including its tendency to be misread. A poem often read as an assertive statement on the virtues of individualism is actually a statement on the uni-directionality of time.

There is no going back. As a traveler through life you have only one chance to decide how that life will be lived.

This is the poem’s message. And, as a theme, it actually has very little to do with individualism or non-conformity.

Adding his contribution to the many, many scholarly and critical voices on the matter, David Orr puts in his oar, as it were, at the Paris Review:

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

Review the poem with this equivalency in mind and you will see that the narrator is expressing regret, not self-congratulation. He wishes he could have been able to take both paths, but as one traveler he cannot take more than one path.

This is a poem that certainly seems to consider, for a moment, ideas of originality and individuality and doing what others have not yet done, but in the end the poem clearly suggests that the true crux of the traveler’s dilemma is not that one can or should choose to go one’s own way but, instead, that one can go only one way.

Frost reportedly wrote this poem as a bit of a joke. A naturalist friend of his that was fond of leading hikes through the woods and pointing out interesting tid-bits along the way often ended the hikes with regret, wishing that he had taken his guest along another path because it would have provided other opportunities for instructive observations.

Alas, each hike had to take but a single path. Regretting that we have but one life to live is, perhaps, worthy of Frost's lampoon if we think for a moment about how this naturalist friend was always sorry that he could not celebrate more varieties, expressions and iterations of flora and fauna. Instead of being glad to have offered a tour of nature, he was troubled by the idea that there was life still left un-remarked and un-celebrated. This is irony and it is a valuable expression thereof.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial