The Road Not Taken Analysis

  • The Road Not Taken” is a popular poem that is often misinterpreted. While many understand the poem to mean that people’s decisions are important, it actually depicts that they are only relevant when they become part of the story people tell—to both others and themselves—about their lives.
  • The fork in the road is symbolic of any choice in life, but Frost makes it clear that the two paths are equally untraveled: both seem to have potential for fairly equal outcomes.
  • Structurally, the poem consists of four stanzas that each follow an abaab rhyme scheme.

Analysis

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Last Updated on December 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

"The Road Not Taken" is a much-loved poem whose true meaning often eludes readers. In fact, Robert Frost lamented that the poem was often taken so seriously when his intentions were actually to convey a bit of deception. In this poem, Frost uses the reflections of a speaker to express...

(The entire section contains 854 words.)

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"The Road Not Taken" is a much-loved poem whose true meaning often eludes readers. In fact, Robert Frost lamented that the poem was often taken so seriously when his intentions were actually to convey a bit of deception. In this poem, Frost uses the reflections of a speaker to express the conflicting nature of making decisions throughout life.

In the opening line, the speaker places himself in a "yellow wood." Thus, the setting is autumn, a time of beautiful change as the heat and glare of summer gives way to new colors throughout the forest. This yellow wood immediately symbolizes one of the main themes of the poem: change is inevitable. As the speaker stands at this fork in the road, he looks down one as far as he can see. There is a sense here that visibility of this path is "long," yet it eventually disappears into a bend in some "undergrowth." Thus, he cannot determine with certainty where this particular path will lead him.

He decides to take the "other" path. At first, he notes that this path has "perhaps the better claim." Initially, it sounds as though the speaker chooses this path because it appears that the opportunities are greater on this "other" path. He then contradicts himself in the next two lines, noting,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same . . .

Frost uses imagery to convey that the speaker is not choosing the more difficult path. Conversely, he isn't choosing the "road less traveled," either: both paths seem to have potential for fairly equal (and equally common) outcomes. Both paths are equally untraveled, which is a point Frost wants to reinforce by repeating this idea with different imagery at the beginning of the next stanza:

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Frost employs subtle alliteration to highlight the similar nature of the paths; they "equally lay," which draws acute attention to their possibilities and visual representation. The yellow leaves in this wood cover the paths of both roads.

It is at this point that the speaker finally takes a breath. Until this point, there has been no ending punctuation, with the speaker's observations and reflections spilling over from line to line by use of enjambment, and from stanza to stanza with only a semicolon and a comma to end stanzas. This structure reflects the nature of decisions: sometimes they are rushed and impulsively made. Though the poem lingers on the nature of decisions themselves, the speaker doesn't seem to actually take a long time in making his particular decision; instead, he is faced with a choice, surveys his options, and proceeds fairly quickly. This sense of impulsivity is reflected in the structure thus far.

In the next line, the speaker's tone touches on a bit of whimsy.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

The use of the interjection at the beginning of the line followed by the exclamation point at the end is a bit melodramatic. He doubles back on this idea in the next two lines, noting that one path always leads to the next, and he doubts that he will actually ever come back—returning, after this, to a more formal tone.

The final stanza begins in a suddenly archaic voice, almost reminiscent of a fairy tale:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence . . .

Note that the speaker sighs here. "Shall" and "hence" connote a feeling of formality, and the phrasing of "ages and ages hence" sounds a bit like "long, long ago" or "once upon a time." The feeling of falling into a fairy tale ending is precisely the ironic intention of the final stanza: the speaker slips into a slight grandiosity, lightly mocking his own wish to create a narrative to contextualize his choice. The speaker, who selects one path over another primarily on a whim, wants to believe that he has chosen the "one less traveled by." Furthermore, he wants to believe that this choice "made all the difference" in the outcome of his life.

Yet it's a fantasy. The speaker realizes as he is speaking about things yet to come that he will rely on the memories he creates and recreates to give meaning to his life. There is a need to believe that his life turned out the way it did because he made the harder choice or took the less-traveled path, but he didn't, as he emphasizes in the imagery of the paths. Therefore, the fairy tale language of the ending reflects the notion that, often, the memories and narratives people have of their own lives are fictional.

The title itself conveys another key strand of the poem: people always entertain the what-ifs of the paths they choose not to travel. Frost uses the entire poem to narrate the decision of the path the speaker chose to take, yet the title reflects just the opposite. Therefore, the title haunts the narrative of the poem from a distance, just as the paths the speaker has chosen not to travel haunt his mind.

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