person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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In his essay “The Constant Symbol,” Frost defined poetry with an interesting series of phrases. Poetry, he wrote, is chiefly “metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority.” His achievement in the poem “The Road Not Taken” is to bring these different uses of metaphor into play in a delightfully ironic balancing act. That is to say, the speaker solemnly uses the metaphor of the two roads to say one thing, while Frost humorously uses the speaker as a metaphor to say something very different.

The speaker is a solemn person who earnestly believes in metaphor as a way of “saying one thing in terms of another.” The speaker uses the details, the “terms,” of a situation in nature to “say” something about himself and his life: that he has difficulty making a choice and that he is regretfully certain that he will eventually be unhappy with the choice that he does make. When he first considers the two roads, he sees one as more difficult, perhaps even a bit menacing (“it bent in the undergrowth”), and the other as being more pleasant (“it was grassy and wanted wear”). Even in taking the second path, though, he reconsiders and sees them both as equally worn and equally covered with leaves. Changing his mind again, he believes that in the future he will look back, realize that he did take the “less traveled” road after all, but regret “with a sigh” that that road turned out to have made “all the difference” in making his life unhappy. The speaker believes that in the future he will be haunted by this earlier moment when he made the wrong choice and by the unfulfilled potential of “the road not taken.”

In contrast to the speaker, Frost uses metaphor to “say one thing and mean another.” That is, Frost presents this speaker’s account of his situation with deadpan solemnity, but he uses the speaker as a specific image of a general way of thinking that Frost means to mock. The speaker first grasps at small details in the landscape to help him choose the better path, then seems to have the common sense to see that the two roads are essentially equivalent, but finally allows his overanxious imagination to run away with him. The reader is meant to smile or laugh when the speaker scares himself into believing that this one decision, with its options that seem so indistinguishable, will turn out someday to be so dire as to make him “sigh” at “all the difference” this choice has made. Frost’s subtle humor is most likely what Frost was referring to when he described the poem in 1961 as “tricky,” for the Thompson biography documents two letters Frost wrote near the time of the poem’s publication (one to Edward Thomas and one to the editor Louis Untermeyer) to convince these readers that the poem is meant to be taken as a joke on the speaker and as a parody of his attitudes.

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