“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

“The Road Not Taken” is a poem in Iambic Tetrameter by Robert Frost, published in Mountain Interval (1916).

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Meaning of the Poem

This poem deals with that big noble question of “How to make a difference in the world?” On first reading, it tells us that the choice one makes really does matter, ending: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Explanation

A closer reading reveals that the lonely choice that the traveling narrator made earlier maybe wasn’t all that significant. Because both roads were pretty much the same anyway (“Had warned them really about the same”) and it is only in the remembering and retelling that it made a difference. We are left to wonder if the narrator had instead traveled down “The Road Not Taken” might it have also made a difference as well. In a sense, “The Road Not Taken” tears apart the traditional view of individualism, which hinges on the importance of choice, as in the case of democracy in general (choosing a candidate), as well as various constitutional freedoms: choice of religion, choice of words (freedom of speech), choice of group (freedom of assembly), and choice of source of information (freedom of press).

For example, we might imagine a young man choosing between being a carpenter or a banker later seeing great significance in his choice to be a banker, but in fact, there was not much in his original decision at all other than a passing fancy. In this, we see the universality of human beings: the roads leading to carpenter and banker being basically the same and the carpenter and bankers at the end of them—seems like individuals who made significant choices—really being just part of the collective of the human race.

Conclusion

Then is this poem not about the question “How to make a difference in the world?” after all? No. It is still about this question. The ending is the clearest and striking part. If nothing else, readers are left with the impression that our narrator, who commands beautiful verse, profound imagery, and time itself (“ages and ages hence”) puts value on striving to make a difference. The striving is reconstituted and complicated here in reflection but our hero wants to make a difference, and so should we. That is why this is a great poem, from a basic or close reading perspective.

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