Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555
Myriad Meanings of “The Road Not Taken”: “The Road Not Taken” can be interpreted in different ways. A common interpretation views it as a celebration of nonconformity, as if the speaker of the poem were congratulating himself for taking a “road less traveled” and deemed his decision correct because of its uniqueness. Conversely, the poem can be understood as an expression of regret and sadness over the speaker’s having to choose only one direction. Last, readers can understand the poem as a parody of human indecisiveness through Frost’s use of extended metaphor. Frost instills irony by overusing form, and some readers see in this overuse the humor of decision-making, including the common experiences of indecision and regret over past decisions. First-time readers of “The Road Not Taken” may not see the multiple ways of interpreting it; because of this, it can be considered a difficult poem to decipher. Fittingly, it has been called “America’s most misread poem.”
- For discussion: What contradictions can be found in the text? What appears straightforward at first, but then becomes confusing?
- For discussion: Review the second and third stanzas. What does the speaker seem to be deciding? Is there a better path to take or does the speaker describe them as the same?
- For personal reflection: Think of a time when you had to make a decision. What are the choices you could have made? If “The Road Not Taken” were about your decision, would the meaning of the poem be affirming, discouraging, or in-between?
Music, Cadence, and Structure: Frost is a deeply musical poet. He composed “The Road Not Taken” with an intense concern for the musicality of the poem: its sounds, rhymes, rhythms, and cadences. The sheer music of the poem is one of its chief gifts. It is also one of the poem’s primary avenues of meaning. For example, the ABAAB rhyme scheme, a variation on the traditional ABAB form, makes readers dwell in each stanza for an extra line, conveying a felt sense of the deliberation central to the poem’s themes. Furthermore, the poem’s balladic qualities—namely, its iambic tetrameter—deepen the felt sense of being on a journey. The best way to bring students into such an analysis is through recitation and, for the bolder of heart, memorization. By reading the poem aloud, students will occupy the poem aurally and physically—not only cerebrally. They will experience the subtle richness of Frost’s sonic textures, the play of consonances and assonances as they cascade across the lines. Memorization instills the poem in the mind, allowing students a more intimate understanding of its lines. Moreover, the process of memorization requires sustained attention and multiple readings, preparing students to discuss the poem at a deeper level.
- For discussion: Pay attention to the fourth line of each stanza as you read. What do you notice? Does the fourth line make you read each stanza slower? How does this change the feeling of the poem?
- For discussion: Focus on the last stanza. The third line down is end-stopped with a dash. What does this dash do for the poem? Why is the extra pause here important? Which word does the dash separate, and why?
- For discussion: How does reading the poem out loud alter your understanding of it? What do you notice when you hear or recite the poem, as opposed to merely reading it on the page?
- For discussion: How does memorizing the poem alter your understanding of it? Do you have a deeper knowledge or appreciation for the poem, having committed it to memory?
Visual and Color-Based Imagery in “The Road Not Taken”: Frost’s poem contains...
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several examples of colorful visual imagery, and such images as “yellow wood” can be interpreted in terms of their color, which can heavily influence and evoke feeling. The color yellow in this case may bring a feeling of wistfulness, as yellowed trees are autumnal and thus signal loss and the passage of time. Additionally, the image of the undergrowth with a path’s bending into it evokes the unknown, the unseeable elements of life. The image is both mysterious and forbidding, representing the speaker’s inability to see the future result of his decision; the decision therefore must be a gamble. Other images, such as “leaves trodden black,” focus again on color; contextually, the color black may bring to mind death or overuse. Here black marks ought to be avoided, for the speaker is looking for a path that is open, unused, and welcoming.
- For discussion: What does “yellow wood” at the beginning of the poem signify? What does it say about the setting?
- For discussion: Review lines 3–5 in the first stanza. What does the image of a path bending in the undergrowth mean? What do you think might lie at the end of that path?
- For discussion: Review the third stanza. Which image in this stanza stands out? Which color? After reading this stanza again, does a well-trodden path come across as good or bad? Why?
Nature and Metaphor in “The Road Not Taken”: Robert Frost’s poetry is influenced heavily by the natural setting of New England. “The Road Not Taken” contains two primary metaphors. The first extended metaphor is that of diverging paths in a wood, which represent the necessary decisions a person has to make in life. The two paths create a necessary choice, highlighting the inability of a person to go both ways at once or go back in time to make the other decision. Second, the image of the “yellow wood” sets the poem in autumn and can be viewed as a metaphor for the transition in the speaker’s life. For example, this can be taken as a shift from youth to maturity, just as the changing of the seasons follows the warmth and life of summer to the cold and dark of winter.
- For discussion: How does the setting add to the poem? Do you think the poem would have the same meaning if it were set in a city? How would it change?
- For discussion: What does Frost use within this forest scene to make metaphors? Have you seen these objects used as metaphors before? If so, were they used in similar or different ways?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Count the number of contradictions Frost places within the poem. What does this technique tell you about the poem’s purpose? What significance do these contradictions carry?
- This poem is often interpreted as showing the triumph of making an independent decision. Outside of this interpretation, what do you think this poem suggests about decision-making?
- Look at the first line of the last stanza. Why is the speaker telling his story “with a sigh”? What associations do you have with the word”sigh”? What impact does this have on the tone of the poem?
- What effect does the title of the poem have on your reading of it? Does it imply anything about the poem’s meaning and purpose?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Ambiguous Meaning: Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has layered meanings and contradictory language. Robert Frost meant the poem to be tricky, humorous, and ironic. Frost wrote in a 1931 essay stating that every metaphor will “break down at some point.” The metaphor of the two roads in “The Road Not Taken” is overdone and has “broken down,” thus inviting Frost’s parodical intent. Because of this, not every aspect of the poem can be easy to unpack and understand. Frost purposely exaggerates to point out the indecisiveness of the speaker, as well as his unhappiness and regret about his choice, despite the indistinguishability of the two roads. Additionally, Frost’s formal diction, contradictions within stanzas, and prolonged metaphor usage may cause readers to have a difficult time discerning the true meaning of “The Road Not Taken.”
- What to do: Find creative ways to explain hidden and ambiguous meanings. Look at how stanzas two and three hold contradictions, and focus on what those contradictions reveal. Show how the confusing language and hidden meanings can be humorous or ironic by pointing out that the speaker is not happy with a decision that he cannot help to make, and that either decision would give a similar result.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Road Not Taken"
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching “The Road Not Taken,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the poem.
Focus on the humor and irony of “The Road Not Taken.” The ambiguous language and contradictions suggest a speaker who is indecisive and unhappy with his choice no matter what. Ask students to consider the overuse of contradictory language, and invite them to interpret it as humorous. What does reading the poem through this lens change about the experience?
Focus on having students break down each stanza individually. Analyzing the poem in smaller segments is a useful precursor to analyzing the poem as a whole. Reading and understanding meaning one stanza at a time may help clarify and highlight tricky spots and ambiguous meanings for students to discuss.