person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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The Poem

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“The Road Not Taken” is one of Robert Frost’s most familiar and most popular poems. It is made up of four stanzas of five lines each, and each line has between eight and ten syllables in a roughly iambic rhythm; the lines in each stanza rhyme in an abaab pattern. The popularity of the poem is largely a result of the simplicity of its symbolism: The speaker must choose between diverging paths in a wood, and he sees that choice as a metaphor for choosing between different directions in life. Nevertheless, for such a seemingly simple poem, it has been subject to very different interpretations of how the speaker feels about his situation and how the reader is to view the speaker. In 1961, Frost himself commented that “The Road Not Taken” is “a tricky poem, very tricky.”

Frost wrote the poem in the first person, which raises the question of whether the speaker is the poet himself or a persona, a character created for the purposes of the poem. According to the Lawrance Thompson biography, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph (1971), Frost would often introduce the poem in public readings by saying that the speaker was based on his Welsh friend Edward Thomas. In Frost’s words, Thomas was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.”

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker, while walking on an autumn day in a forest where the leaves have changed to yellow, must choose between two paths that head in different directions. He regrets that he cannot follow both roads, but since that is not possible, he pauses for a long while to consider his choice. In the first stanza and the beginning of the second, one road seems preferable; however, by the beginning of the third stanza he has decided that the paths are roughly equivalent. Later in the third stanza, he tries to cheer himself up by reassuring himself that he will return someday and walk the other road.

At the end of the third stanza and in the fourth, however, the speaker resumes his initial tone of sorrow and regret. He realizes that he probably will never return to walk the alternate path, and in the fourth stanza he considers how the choice he must make now will look to him in the future. The speaker believes that when he looks back years later, he will see that he had actually chosen the “less traveled” road. He also thinks that he will later realize what a large difference this choice has made in his life. Two important details suggest that the speaker believes that he will later regret having followed his chosen road: One is the idea that he will “sigh” as he tells this story, and the other is that the poem is entitled “The Road Not Taken”—implying that he will never stop thinking about the other path he might have followed.

Themes and Meanings

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“The Road Not Taken” is an excellent example of what Frost meant by “the pleasure of ulteriority” in his poetry. That is, the poem offers an entertaining double perspective on the theme of making choices, with one perspective fairly obvious and the other more subtle.

Considered through the perspective of the speaker himself, “The Road Not Taken” is an entirely serious, even a sad poem. It expresses both the turmoil of making a choice and the depressing expectation that the choice he makes between seemingly equal options will turn out for the worse—is in fact going to make an even greater difference for the worse than seems possible when he makes the choice.

Considered from Frost’s perspective, on the other hand, “The Road Not Taken” is a humorous parody of the speaker’s portentous habits of mind. Frost’s 1931 essay “Education by Poetry” offers further clarification on this point. In it, he wrote that people need to understand that all metaphors are human constructs that “break down at some point”; people need to “know [a] metaphor in its strength and its weakness[h]ow far [one] may expect to ride it and when it may break down.” From this perspective, the main problem of the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” is that he tries to ride his metaphor too far and too hard. Although he sees it break down early in the poem (in that he actually cannot see any real difference between the two roads), the speaker persists in thinking that the road is “less traveled” in some way that he cannot see and that this difference will lead to dire consequences later on.

One other common interpretation of the poem deserves brief consideration: the view that the poem is a celebration of nonconformity, an exhortation to the reader to take the road “less traveled.” In this interpretation, the title is seen as referring to the road that the speaker does take (which is “the road not taken” by most other people), and the speaker is seen as ultimately exultant that he took the road “less traveled,” because it “has made all the difference” in enhancing his life. To consider the validity of this interpretation, one must put aside Frost’s stated intentions for the poem—an act that many critics consider sometimes justified because an author’s intentions cannot be seen as fully controlling the impression made by a literary work. Aside from the issue of Frost’s intentions, however, this interpretation still conflicts with many salient details in the poem. One problem with this view is that the speaker can hardly be praised as a strong nonconformist if in the middle of the poem he can see little difference between the paths, let alone vigorously choose the road “less traveled.” Another problem is that he imagines telling his story in the future with a “sigh,” an unlikely gesture for a vigorous champion of nonconformity.

In 1935, Frost wrote on the subject of style that “style is the way [a] man takes himself.If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” “The Road Not Taken” is a notable example of Frost’s own sophisticated style, of his ability to create ironic interplay between outer seriousness and inner humor.

Yet the humor of the poem also has its own serious side. This humor conveys more than merely the ridicule found in parody: It also expresses an implied corrective to the condition that it mocks. This condition is that the speaker sees the course and tone of his life as determined by forces beyond his range of vision and control. Frost implies that if the speaker were able to see himself with some humor, and if he were able to take more responsibility for his choices and attitude, he might find that he himself could make “all the difference” in his own life.

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