The Road Not Taken Key Ideas and Commentary
by Robert Frost

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”...

(The entire section is 1,167 words.)