In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle steps into the yellow wood of a famous American poem
Robert Frost’s two best-known poems both involve a speaker stopping in, or by, a wood: one takes place at the end of the day, in winter (his ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’), while the other, his most famous poem, takes place one morning during autumn. That poem is ‘The Road Not Taken’, which mentions a ‘yellow wood’ within its opening line. But what does that yellow wood symbolise?
Well, most obviously, the yellow wood in Frost’s poem symbolises autumn: the wood is yellow because the leaves – once green during the fulness of spring and summer – have turned yellow as summer has given way to autumn. But autumn itself carries fairly heavy connotations of death, decay, ageing, and a myriad other things.
Even if we stick with the most important meaning represented by that ‘yellow wood’ in Frost’s poem – that it indicates the scene is taking place in autumn – the term ‘autumn’ may be too vague. Leaves tend to turn yellow in early autumn, in September and October, but as autumn progresses many of those leaves will turn brown as they further decay. So we might go even further and say that the moment Frost captures in ‘The Road Not Taken’ occurred in early rather than late autumn, or in that transition time between summer and autumn, as one season is giving way to the next.
This is in keeping with the other time marker we’re given in the poem: morning. For both roads that lay ahead of Frost ‘that morning’, he tells us, ‘equally lay’ in a pile of leaves undisturbed by any feet. It is morning: the time when night has given way to day. So if not quite a poem about the transition point, or fault-lines, between two time periods, ‘The Road Not Taken’ is certainly a poem about something that has recently passed (summer, night) and given way to something new (autumn, day).
This is fitting, of course, for a poem all about the moment when Frost – or his speaker, at least – is forced to make a decision about which way to take, as he comes to a fork in the road. It is a time of new beginnings, of setting off (literally) on a new road. The meaning of the poem (often misunderstood by readers who have never stopped to study or analyse it closer) is that it didn’t really matter which road Frost took, as they were both the same, with nothing to distinguish between them. But he decides to concoct the fiction that one was ‘less traveled’ and to tell people that he took that one because it was less travelled by.
The ‘yellow wood’, we might say, then, serves two purposes for Frost: one practical, the other more symbolic and curious. The first, practical reason is that it really has to be early autumn, because that’s the time of year when there are plenty of leaves freshly fallen from the trees and covering the track. In summer, the leaves wouldn’t have fallen; in winter or even late autumn, they would have begun to rot away in a succession of frosts, storms, or just from the ravages of time as autumn marches on towards winter. And Frost needs the roads – both of them – to be ‘equally’ covered in lots of autumn leaves. Hence that ‘yellow wood’.
But we might also say that a useful corollary to this detail – a by-product, if you will – is that it puts the time of day of the poem (morning, symbolising a new start or setting off on a fresh journey) and the time of year of the poem (early autumn) in tension with one another: autumn is about the year beginning to come to an end, as opposed to spring, when everything is awash and abuzz with new life and rebirth. It’s worth noting that Frost could have set ‘The Road Not Taken’ during the evening, as he did with ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. Then, both autumn and evening would have been in symbolic agreement.
But it’s important that it’s not evening, but morning, when Frost is out for his walk. It charges that ‘yellow wood’ with a more conflicted and complex meaning: it is the site where Frost will embark on a new path, but there is also a sense of decay and decline, of things being past their best, as he sets off on that new road. This suggests that the speaker of the poem (whether Frost or some invented persona: Frost was in his early forties when he wrote it, so arguably felt his own youth was behind him) is entering the ‘autumn’ of his life, or at least his prime.
And this fits well with the bittersweet or even poignant note sounded by ‘The Road Not Taken’, not to mention its strong sense of irony (is that ‘sigh’ in the final stanza one of satisfaction for choosing the ‘right’ road or regret at not choosing the other one?). Although it appears a casual detail, things are rarely casual in Frost’s poetry. And that ‘yellow wood’ is a revealing detail loaded with meaning.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.