‘The Road Not Taken’ is one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems. Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet whose work was at odds with many of his modernist contemporaries, such as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot. He disliked free verse – memorably characterising it as ‘playing tennis with the net down’ – and his work is more direct, and often more Romantic, than much modernist writing.
And ‘The Road Not Taken’, a poem rich in symbolism, is a good example of Frost’s style and approach. However, the poem is far from simple. Indeed, it may well be the most misinterpreted poem in all of American literature.
The poem appeared in his first collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key symbols in the poem so that we can understand its meaning more clearly.
The Yellow Wood.
The first symbol we encounter in ‘The Road Not Taken’ is also the setting for the poem: the yellow wood through which the poem’s speaker is travelling.
On one level, the wood symbolises autumn: the wood is yellow because the leaves – once green during 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.
It’s also true that the two roads the speaker has to choose between wouldn’t have been concealed beneath the freshly fallen leaves if it wasn’t autumn. Autumn is the time of year when there’s an abundance of leaves fallen on the ground.
Frost tells us that his encounter with the two roads took place ‘that morning’: it is so early that there are no signs that anyone has disturbed the yellow leaves so far that day.
It is morning: the time when night has given way to day. So if not quite a poem about the transition point 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 Two Roads.
The central ‘story’ of ‘The Road Not Taken’ involves the speaker’s choice between two possible roads he can take through the woods. Faced with this decision, he decides to take the ‘one less traveled by’.
But this is a fiction, a lie he has told himself. He freely confesses that really, both paths were ‘about the same’ in terms of how worn they were with previous travellers’ footprints; and they were ‘equally’ concealed beneath freshly fallen leaves.
So these two roads don’t, in fact, symbolise two very different ‘paths’ open to us: one that is well-trodden and more popular, the other more neglected and less worn.
The meaning of the poem is that it didn’t really matter which of the two roads were taken, as they were both essentially the same, with nothing to distinguish between them. But Frost’s poem is about the stories we tell ourselves, the fictions we create, to make our decisions appear to carry more meaning.
So 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. But the roads are not just roads in a wood: on some level, they are symbols for life itself.
After all, we talk about ‘the journey of life’; we talk about ‘being on the right path’ or ‘walking the road of life together’, and so on. We often conceptualise our lives as journeys, where we are on different roads (or, if we’re lucky, the same road) and moving towards a destination, making progress of some kind.
Here, the speaker does keep talking and so is going somewhere, but where he is going remains unknowable and unknown. The symbolism of the two roads, then, becomes obvious. Frost is pointing out that when we make one decision, we are often shutting down another option. We cannot take both roads: we cannot take both jobs; we cannot marry two people we’re in love with; and so on, and so on.
The poem, then, is about ‘the road not taken’ because it is partly a lament for these missed opportunities and these roads never travelled. We cannot say if they would have been better roads for us than the ones we did end up taking. But we are often haunted by the possibility, the ‘what if’, concerning where those other roads might have led.