The classic Robert Frost poem analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Road Not Taken’ is one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems. It appeared in his first collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916; indeed, ‘The Road Not Taken’ opens the volume. For this reason, it’s natural and understandable that many readers take the poem to be Frost’s statement of individualism as a poet: he will take ‘the road less travelled’. But when we analyse Frost’s poem more closely, we realise how inaccurate such a summary of the poem is. Frost himself, two years before his death, lamented the way readers and critics had misinterpreted the poem, which he called ‘tricky’. You can read ‘The Road Not Taken’ here.
Rather than offer a summary of ‘The Road Not Taken’, we’ll undertake a brief paraphrase of the poem’s meaning. ‘I came to a fork in the road in the yellow wood through which I was travelling, and wished I could have travelled both paths. But obviously that wasn’t an option, so I spent a long while standing there and deliberating which to choose. After spending a good while looking down one of the roads as far as I could see, I then took the other road, since it seemed just as nice. And it seemed to be preferable, perhaps, because it wasn’t as well-trodden as the other – its grass was less worn.
Though actually, if I’m honest, both paths were as worn as each other, suggesting that both roads were really about equal in terms of how many people had passed along them. Both of the roads were covered with leaves and there was no sign, on the morning I passed through that way, that anyone had walked either path yet that day. I decided to come back another day and take the other path, the road I hadn’t taken. But in reality, knowing that one road tends to lead onto another, I doubted whether I would ever come back to this spot. In the future I’ll tell people, with a sigh, that two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that’s made all the difference.’
Not how the above paraphrase-as-summary turns into more or less word-for-word recital of Frost’s words in those final few lines of the poem. They don’t need paraphrasing: they’re plain as day. Why is it, then, that many readers apparently misinterpret ‘The Road Not Taken’? How should we analyse Frost’s poem, and how have we been getting it wrong?
The way the poem is often summarised – eliding the subtle self-commentary that the poem’s speaker provides – offers a clue to this interpretive misfire. Frost’s narrator comes to a fork in the road and, lamenting the fact that he has to choose between them, takes ‘the one less traveled by’. Yet this isn’t true, as the poem’s speaker admits: the two paths are, in fact, equally covered with leaves – one is not ‘less traveled by’ after all, but it suits him to pretend that this was so, as a way of justifying his decision to take one road over the other. After all, ‘two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took one of them, and there was absolutely nothing to pick between them’ wouldn’t have made all the difference, for there is no difference.
One of the best places to begin a close analysis of a poem is often with the title, and with Frost’s poem this old piece of advice is truer than with most poems. After all, the poem is titled ‘The Road Not Taken’, and not ‘The Road Less Travelled’: in other words, Frost’s poem foregrounds to us that it is the road he didn’t take – not the apparently ‘less traveled’ one that he did – which is the real subject of the poem.
The poem’s famous final lines are less a proud assertion of individualism, then, and more a bittersweet example of the way we always rewrite our own histories to justify the decisions we make. ‘I kidded myself that one of the roads was less well-trodden and so, to be different from the mainstream, that’s the one I took, brave and independent risk-taker and road-taker that I am.’
This isn’t true, but it’s the sort of self-myth-making we often go in for. It’s also significant here that in Mountain Interval, where it was first published in 1916, ‘The Road Not Taken’ appears as a sort of preface to the poems that follow: it’s typeset in italics rather than Roman type, as if it’s being offered as a test to the reader.
What is also less well-known than it should be about ‘The Road Not Taken’ is the fact that the poem may have begun life as Frost’s gentle ribbing of his friend, the English poet Edward Thomas, with whom Frost had taken many walks during the pre-WWI years when Frost had been living in England. (Thomas was on his way to visit Frost in June 1914 when his train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop railway station – an event that inspired Thomas’s poem of that name.)
Frost found Thomas to be an indecisive man, and after he’d written ‘The Road Not Taken’ but before it was published, he sent it to Thomas, whose indecisiveness even extended to uncertainty over whether to follow Frost to the United States or to enlist in the army and go and fight in France. Frost intended the poem to be a semi-serious mockery of people like Thomas, but it was taken more seriously by Thomas, and by countless readers since. Indeed, Frost’s poem may even have been what inspired Thomas to make up his mind and finally choose which ‘road’ to follow: he chose war over America, and ‘The Road Not Taken’ is, perhaps, what forced his hand.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. However, as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory: ‘The Gift Outright’. Most critics agree that ‘The Gift Outright’ is a superior poem to the inauguration poem Frost had written, and ‘The Gift Outright’ is now more or less synonymous with Kennedy’s inauguration.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Robert Frost in c. 1910, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.