person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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History of the Text

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Publication History and Reception: “The Road Not Taken” was published in Frost’s book Mountain Interval in 1916, in the middle of WWI. Since publication, it has been interpreted in several ways. Most commonly, readers have understood it either as a lamentation of choice or as a celebration of making a unique choice. Frost, however, meant the poem as a parody of human nature and the common inability to make decisions and be content with them. Many have misunderstood the poem, and Frost saw this after reading it to a college audience where it was “taken pretty seriously,” despite his efforts to read it humorously. Another common interpretation not meant by Frost is the idea of “The Road Not Taken” as representing nonconformity and pride in unique life choices—the “road less traveled by”— as compared to “common” life choices. 

  • The first draft of “The Road Not Taken,” which at first Frost titled “Two Roads,” was sent to Frost’s friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas. Shortly after reading Frost’s first draft, Thomas, who had been considering enlisting since the beginning of the war in 1914, ended up enlisting and going to the front. Thomas died in 1917 at Arras, France, two months after deploying. Although Frost’s poem did not send Thomas to war, Thomas took the poem as an affront to his indecisiveness and “responded angrily” to it at first reading. 

Robert Frost’s Life and Literary Influences: Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. Although he lived during the peak of the modernist movement and his poetic style can be considered modernist, Frost was often a formally conventional poet, focusing his poetry on rural New England. Frost is famous for relating the nature and beauty of New England. Around four years before publishing “The Road Not Taken,” Frost was finding little success in the United States with his poetry. Because of this, Frost chose to move with his family to England, where he was able to find better success with his poetry and publish two books, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, before returning to the United States. 

  • Frost published A Boy’s Will in 1913 and North of Boston in 1914 during his time in England, a period in which he befriended poet Edward Thomas. Both of Frost’s books were successful and boosted Frost’s stature as a poet in the United States upon his return in 1915. 
  • Two primary literary influences shaped Frost’s poetic style. The first—and more powerful—influence was the tradition of formal verse; the second, the modernist movement. The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought the ascent of modernism, a movement influenced by the Second Industrial Revolution and WWI. Modernism struggled with the loss of meaning and of guiding principles in society. The world had changed drastically, and writers and artists mirrored this change with new modes of expression. Frost often displayed key modernist styles and concerns with his colloquial language, penchant for ambiguity and layered meaning, and reflections into “personal darkness.” 
  • Although World War I marks an early creative peak for the modernist movement, not all poetry published at the time of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is considered modernist; the turn of the 20th century holds no clear break between modernism and its predecessors. Frost’s poetry is better understood in the context of his personal interests and obsessions: the people and landscape of New England, the struggle with religious faith, the challenges of morality, and the possibilities of communication between individuals, to name a few. 

Structure of the Text

The structure of “The Road Not Taken” combines traditional techniques with Frost’s modern touches. Further, the structure makes use of particular end stops and an ABAAB rhyme scheme. 

End-Stopped Lines: Frost uses semicolons, commas, dashes, and periods to end stop particular lines. For example, important end-stopped lines appear in the third stanza and add to the gravity of the poem. The third stanza has two lines that are end-stopped with periods, adding a feeling of finality to the stanza and highlighting the speaker’s understanding of the futility and finality of his decision. Another example of a powerful end-stopped line can be seen in the third line of the final stanza. The line ends with a dash that separates the repeated word “I.” By using this dash, Frost emphasizes a separation of self before and after making the decision to take a certain path while also showing hesitation before making the final decision. 

Rhyme Scheme and Meter: The cadence of “The Road Not Taken” can be analyzed on two levels: the rhyme scheme of the stanzas and the metrical cadence of the individual lines. Each stanza is defined by the ABAAB rhyme scheme, which causes the poem to slow and gives readers a feeling of deliberation when reading the poem. The individual line is built on iambic tetrameter, a four-beat meter. Every beat has one unstressed and one stressed syllable, which creates an down-and-up cadence when reading through a line. The poem’s iambic tetrameter and ABAAB rhyme scheme form a distinct rhythmic cadence that is halting yet potent in its delivery. 

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Structure of the Text