Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Road Not Taken questions.
Why is "The Road Not Taken" called "America's Most Mis-Read Poem"?
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.
What inspired the poem?
Robert Frost's well-known poem "The Road Not Taken" might be inspired by a decision the poet made at some critical time in the past. He likely had to decide between devoting his life to his poetry or compromising, as many creative persons do, by taking the more practical course, or "road," leading to a career that would provide security and comfort and hopefully allow him time for his art. Frost chose to lead an austere life and devote his life to poetry.
Frost was called and chosen. He was one of the few fortunate ones. Incidentally, an interesting and amusing example of a poet who was not chosen can be found in John Collier's short story "Evening Primrose," included in his 1951 collection Fancies and Goodnights.
What is the meaning of the final stanza?
The last stanza of Robert Frost's famous poem reads as follows:
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.
The "sigh" is represented by the dash after "and I" and the repetition of the word "I" at the beginning of the next line. We could interpret this poem as being about Robert Frost himself (although it is important to remember that poet and speaker are certainly not synonymous). It might be supposed that the poet is sighing because he is still wondering what would have happened to him if he had chosen that other road, "the road not taken." On the other hand, he may be sighing because he remembers the road he did take. The road not taken is only an imaginary road, but the road taken was a real road, and the poet can remember what a steep and precarious road it was. The real road was far more likely to cause that deep sigh than the illusory road.
Frost had to travel a long, grueling road before he finally achieved some recognition as a poet. When he was an old man, he was world-famous. He was invited to read one of his poems at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, a singular honor. But it was a cold, windy day in January, and the white-haired poet's eyes were watering so badly that he couldn't read what he had written.
In "The Road Not Taken," the poet is probably not sighing because he thinks he might have chosen the wrong road; he is probably sighing because he chose the right road but it turned out to be far longer and steeper than he could have imagined when he was an aspiring young poet.
Where did that other road lead?
Many readers have wondered about the road that was not taken. Where did it lead? Why is the speaker still wondering where it led and whether he made the right decision when he took the other road? Perhaps the poem is intended to leave the reader wondering about these things, just as the speaker himself is wondering about them. If the answers to the questions were easier to deduce, then the questions would not remain so haunting. Perhaps it was the poet's intention to leave the reader with the image in his mind of that other road extending enticingly "to where it bent in the undergrowth." It seems futile to try to guess where that other road led, since the poet himself could not tell, is still wondering many years later, and expects to be wondering "somewhere ages and ages hence."