By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Two roads diverged in a wood’; ‘I took the one less traveled by’. These two lines have become famous since they were written, and they are widely quoted. But their meaning is also widely misunderstood. What did Robert Frost mean when he wrote, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less traveled by’?
‘The Road Not Taken’ is one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems. It appeared in his first collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916, as the opening poem. For this reason, given it’s the curtain-raiser for his career, 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’.
The metaphor of the road is one that immediately evokes a journey, not just of the local or day-to-day kind, but of the life-defining sort: life as a journey, with many roads which we must travel along, and with many alternative paths which we must choose between.
But when we analyse Frost’s poem more closely, we realise how inaccurate an interpretation of ‘Two roads diverged in a wood’ this really is. Frost himself, two years before his death, lamented the way readers and critics had misinterpreted the poem, which he called ‘tricky’.
Those two roads diverged, forcing Frost to choose one, but this means that he also necessarily had to choose not to take the other. In opting for one road, he was consciously rejecting the other.
Frost’s poem describes how he came to a fork in the road and wished he could have taken both paths. But that isn’t possible, of course, so with a heavy heart he had to choose between these two roads which diverged in a ‘yellow wood’.
He took his time making his decision, because there seemed to be very little way of telling which road might be the better one to plump for. The only thing that seems to have made the chosen road preferable is the fact that it wasn’t as well-trodden as the other: its grass was less worn.
But even this, it turns out, isn’t true: it’s merely Frost (or Frost’s speaker, at least) retrospectively trying to fashion and furnish a reason for taking the road he did. In reality, he admits, there was no reason. The grass was equally worn on both roads.
It was, after all, a more or less arbitrary choice. Neither path appeared to have been walked down on that particular day, as the presence of the leaves upon both roads suggested. (It’s a ‘yellow wood’, remember, summoning the colours of autumn when the leaves fall from the trees.)
So, faced with these two roads – these two, to all intents and purposes, equal roads – Frost chose one on a whim. He told himself that, to even things out, he would come back another day and take the other one, but again, he immediately goes on to contradict and correct himself, stating that he knows he is just telling himself he will do this, but that in reality he almost certainly won’t. He’ll never come back to this spot.
So Frost’s lines about two roads that ‘diverged in a wood’ and his taking ‘the one less traveled by’ is, for all that, just a narrative shaped after the event: a story to tell people. The most famous lines in Frost’s poem are not some sincere declaration of the importance of choosing the more original and less popular course of action, of bucking the trend and standing apart from the crowd – although this is how Frost’s lines have been interpreted.
His ‘two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by’ is not some rousing paean to individualism but an entirely false and fabricated piece of performative narrative-weaving, as he tries to imbue his arbitrary decision with a semblance of meaning. In truth, there is no meaning to it. No rhyme, if you will, or reason.
If we go back to the title of Frost’s poem, we can see that that title gives us a hint that this is the intended meaning. The poem is titled ‘The Road Not Taken’, not ‘The Road Less Travelled’. Frost’s poem foregrounds that it is the road he didn’t take which is the real subject of the poem. When choosing one path over another, do we ever regret our choice? We often wonder about the choices we didn’t make, the chances we didn’t take. We regret not doing things all the time.
But many decisions only allow us an either/or option. They are binary. Should I marry this person or not marry them? Those are, baldly speaking, the only two choices, even if not marrying X leads to our marrying Y. Should I take this job or not take this job?
In titling his poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ and making the choice between two roads that diverged in a wood, Frost imparts a much greater meaning to his poem, since it represents all such ‘do X or don’t do X’ choices we face in our lives. Hamlet had his: ‘To be, or not to be’.
The poem’s famous final lines are less a proud assertion of individualism than 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. But Frost’s final lines are also about how taking one course means that we didn’t take another course, and that may make all the difference, and not always for the better.
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.
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. And for Thomas, the road he chose really did make a difference: tragically, he was killed during the Battle of Arras in 1917.