Old School Sundays: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

I had a professor in college who once referred to Frost’s poetry as “simply complex.” It’s not a bad description, actually; Frost’s writing is clearly stated, accessible, and identifiable, yet there’s more beneath lurking beneath the surface. In that sense, Frost is often misunderstood . His plain spoken, nature-loving words often come across as adages in stanza-form, all bound up in a perfect poetic package. Surely though, such a prolific man of literature goes beyond Dr. Seuss for adults.

There are dark undertones to Frost’s poetry. In the poem entitled, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” the familiar last line (repeated twice), “Miles to go before I sleep,” doesn’t necessary mean that one must keep going in order to pursue her dreams.

Let’s look at the rest of that stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

The scenario in the poem is a man riding his horse through the woods in sub-zero temperatures; hence, if he “stops” he will likely perish. “Sleep” then becomes synonymous with death. A much darker premise for a poem than simply not giving up on dreams. Of course, there’s a more specific life metaphor in there somewhere. My point is that not all Frost poems are what they seem.

2happy → in Nature

The poem I’d like to speak about in more depth today is “The Road Not Taken.” Common words used at graduations, or inscribed in yearbooks. Of course, this one too, may not be so cut and dry:

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 word 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.

March to the beat of different drummer. Follow your own path. Make your own way. This is what a surface reading of the poem demands. And while most seem to grasp that a the “road” metaphor is meant to suggest life in general, the poem, taken into consideration,  is rather vague, ambiguous.

2happy → in Landscape

Certain symbolism must be taken into account. In the first stanza, the woods are described as “yellow.” In poetry, yellow is a color that often carries negative connotations. Does this have significance? Maybe, maybe not.

And these two lines suggest ambivalence:

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same

Is this to suggest that the two roads weren’t all that different in the first place?

And what about this?

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

When faced with a life decision, we truly can only go one way, isn’t that true? We’ll never know what might have been. We can promise ourselves to try both ways, to come back and test out our alternative options, but the truth is, how many paths can we really follow? What do we lose each time we make a choice to go one way and not the other?

Then, in the first line of the last stanza, the word “sigh” suggests regret. “I shall be telling with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence.”Don’t we worry about that old notion of waking up one day and realizing what a waste our lives have been? All the missed opportunities, fallen chances, and failures?

In the final line, Frost writes: “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”

Does this “difference” he speaks of necessarily mean better? Of course it made a difference. No matter what choice we make, it made all the difference. “The Road Not Taken” then, as it says right in the title, could be a lamentation or at most, a mystery. Something we’ll never know, never grasp, because life will only allow us to follow one path at a time.

What’s your interpretation?

Got to love poetry with all its layers! This by the way, is my first in a short series of “Old School Poetry.” Hope you liked it!

Recommended: A Close Look at Robert Frost

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14 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, Old School Sundays, Uncategorized

14 responses to “Old School Sundays: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

  1. There are so many paths we can take in life, and it can seem overwhelming at times. I guess it comes down to listening to one’s gut. The brain is important too, but the gut usually knows. 🙂

    • Yes very true, Carrie. I sometimes confuse my brain and my gut and then I can’t tell who or what I’m listening to! But I do think the poem’s deeper, darker message is true. When it comes to certain things in life, we can only take one path. And taking one path means giving up another. It can be hard, but we have to learn how to ferret out those regrets that we can’t do a whole lot about. This is why I love literature!

  2. Love this post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for sharing your study of this Katie. I’ll admit I had never thought of those perspectives, but once revealed, they’re pretty interesting. In regards to the road less traveled, I tend to have a viewpoint that everything I’ve done, whether right or optimal, must have been somewhat a good experience because regardless I have made progress on the path of life (we are but the sum of our experiences). So I get the point about how it made a difference, everything does. But is difference good, or bad?

    • Thanks for coming by, Elaine. It’s good to hear from you again. The poem really is very interesting, and so highly misunderstood. Not many people go beyond a surface reading and in that sense, it seems that the poet is obviously encouraging independence, etc. But there’s no way Robert Frost would write something so simple. It’s about choices and the good or bad consequences that come from them. Every choice makes a difference, yes. But we’ll never be able to say how good or bad the results will be.

  4. It’s funny that it’s so often used as a way to encourage trailblazing. Upon numerous readings, I still come away with a sense that he is simply acknowledging that he made a choice, it was different from the other path, but not inherently better or worse. Perhaps that he was the kind of person who would choose the less trodden path is what made all the difference and not the path itself.

    • I agree completely, the misunderstood nature of the poem has almost made it trite throughout the decades. It shouldn’t be that way because I truly believe there is more than meets the eye in this enterprise. I like your comment about the PERSON, not the PATH that is making the difference. Great insight! Love it.

  5. Old School Poetry is a great idea!
    Though I’ve been told my writing is poetic 🙂 writing poetry eludes me. Perhaps I feel that I need characters to animate my words? Not sure, but keep these coming because I love all those layers of meaning!
    I can see The Road Not Taken as a meditation on free will. Do we choose the path, or do we merely think we’re choosing the path because it is the one that appeals to the vagaries of our nature? In the end are all paths leading to the same conclusion anyway? I suppose that’s pretty dark for such a uplifting poem, but now your comment that ‘yellow’ often has negative connotations makes sense to me.
    I always learn something here! 🙂

    • Glad you like the idea, Kirsten! I realized that I’ve done so much quotations from novels and plays, but I’ve hardly touched on poetry. I like reading poetry a lot, but when it comes to writing it, I’m pretty awful. I took a couple courses on poetry writing in grad school, and I’ll say that I got BETTER at it, but still, it never came as naturally to me as fiction. I’m with you. There needs to a be a sage in place, characters speaking, etc. And I agree, some of your prose is rather poetic!

      I don’t think your analysis is dark–I honestly don’t believe the poem was meant to be uplifting in the first place. It just has been interpreted that way for decades. I like your analysis, in fact. Goes beyond a mere surface reading.

  6. I learned these poems in middle school and can still recite them. I didn’t fully understand as a 12 year old but they certainly serve me well now.

    • There’s something about them that stick with you isn’t there? I think it’s the simple nature of the words and the way they are constructed. Funny that schools would present these poems to middle school kids! Like I said in the post the poetry itself is so much darker and more complex than it seems! Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Reblogged this on mjmbluemoonyahoo and commented:
    In High School I ,the shyest person in the school,had to recite this poem in speech class. We all had to do this one. We had to work it ,borrow it from Robert Frost,and make it our very own. As I continued become an adult it made me want to take” the road less taken”. I did. Sometimes I am sorry I did,and then I am grateful for everything in my Life. I’m thankful for my life. I love Robert Frost’s works and biography of his life. I also just love the works of EB White. Thank you for having this here,with picture of my road 🙂 ❤

    • Thanks so much for the reblog! I’m touched! I wouldn’t be sorry for taking the road less traveled. It’s what led to you to where you are now. That’s really the whole point of the poem, isn’t it?

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