person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This poem is very often misinterpreted as an inspirational verse meant to encourage readers to make tough decisions—to choose the path that fewer people have walked, so to speak. One hears it recited at graduation ceremonies, set to uplifting musical scores, and even printed in yearbooks and notebook inserts meant to touch the hearts of students. In reality, the poem conveys the idea that it isn't actually possible to make unique and brave choices because all of the choices open to us have actually been made by those who came before, though we like to believe that we can be unique.

The speaker of the poem says that, in terms of comparing the two roads ahead of him, they do look a little different from one another—one is grassier than the other,

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really the same . . .

In other words, the number of people who have traveled each road have worn them down about the same amount. This would lead readers to believe, then, that about the same number of people have traveled each road.

If the fork in the road symbolizes a decision, then each road is a choice. If the same number of people have traveled each road, then the same number of people have made each choice, and there is not, after all, a unique or "less traveled" road to choose.

Further, the speaker says of the roads,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

On the particular morning when he first approaches the fork in the road, no one appears to have traveled either one. Both of them equally lay in leaves that are still yellow and have not been muddied by the shoes of passers-by. One is no more or less traveled than the other. The speaker has no way of knowing which one he ought to choose; he must simply choose.

However, after he does so, he remarks that he plans to tell the story somewhat differently in the future. He will tell people, as he sighs,

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.

Yet he has already implied by his earlier description that there is no road less traveled. He knows this well, and he ironically implies that he might stretch the truth, perhaps to make the story of his choice more satisfying than the actual choice was. In fact, his turn straight from the choice to how he might tell its story in the future is telling: the choice does not actually matter at all, but his consideration of his story of the choice does.

Rather than an inspirational verse meant to encourage us to make our own choices, the poem turns out to be a more realistic, even skeptical warning that there really is no such thing.

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