Symbolism and Theme in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

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.

--Robert Frost "The Road Not Taken"


“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

and that has made all the difference.”

These are the famous last lines from Robert Frost’s much debated and discussed poem “The Road Not Taken.” One of his most well known poems, it strikes a chord with any who read it. The theme and symbolism featured within has been the subject of a wide variety of interpretations, however, most insist that this poem symbolizes the incessant curiosity that resides within human nature. Whichever choice is taken in life, one will always wonder what possibilities the other choice may have held.

Many interpretations have been made of this poem, but Frost himself claimed the inspiration came from his dear friend Edward Thomas, a welsh poet whom he’d met in England (6). It was said that Thomas was never content with the choices he made, and whenever walking with Frost in England, would always regret path they had chosen. Frost had even said to Thomas, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another” (6). The poem is a gentle teasing of not only his friend’s constant regret and curiosity, but also that of human behavior. The subtle humor found at the end of Frost’s poem gently pokes fun of humanity’s unsatisfied and curious nature on one level, but also sheds light upon the finalities of choice, and the lost opportunities that go with them (1).

Within the four stanzas of “The Road Not Taken” the speaker narrates coming across two roads while walking through the woods one autumn morning. The symbolic value of the forking roads is fairly easy to grasp, representing the choices that one comes across throughout the journey of life. Regretful that he can choose only one, the speaker is careful in his choice of road, “long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;” (lines 3-5). This is where much of the debate on theme and symbolism begins. For instance, an article written by William Pritchard, claims that the speaker’s choice between the roads was a matter of impulse, and not one of careful decision, because of the emphasis he put on the similarities between the roads (5).

Three times within the first three stanzas, the speaker mentions how the roads are virtually the same. First by describing the roads “as just as fair” (line 6), then with “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (lines 9-10), and finishing with lines eleven and twelve, saying “both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” Many claim that he contradicts himself here, and attempts to deceive himself as well as his audience by claiming the path he took was “grassy and wanted wear” (line 8). That instead, there was no road less traveled by, and in saying so the speaker is really just attempting to glorify his impulsive choice (4).

However, it may be more appropriate to see the speaker in a different light. He is not lying about the roads, but rather, he studies them long enough until he can find any difference between them. After all, he is faced with a choice, and cannot continue until he chooses, so it is not unreasonable to think that he would take as much consideration as possible in making his decision.

When evaluating the symbolism side by side with the theme here, one can see that instead of just being roads passing through a wood, they are instead roads that lead down different paths in life. And so the caution exhibited by the speaker would be expected. Though initially the paths seem to be the same, upon closer inspection one can see the differences that would result in different outcomes in life. The speaker does admit in line seven that the road holds only “perhaps the better claim,” because the differences between them are so few, it is difficult for the speaker to be completely sure in his decision.

The roads symbolism is seen throughout the theme of the entire poem, and sheds light upon the nature of human thought and indecision. The poem is an example of the “difficult but necessary process of making choices in life” (6). It is difficult to make a choice that will affect the outcome of one’s life, and human nature lends to curiosity. What could have been? What opportunities were gained, and what opportunities were lost by the choice made?

Unsatisfied with the unknown, the speaker tries to convince himself that he will have the opportunity to someday return and experience the other path. Life, however, does not work this way, and the speaker knows this. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/ I doubted if I should ever come back” (lines 14-15). Even if the reader were able to return and travel the other road, the circumstances would never again be the same they were at that moment, on that particular day. As Jennifer Bouchard says in her article, “Because one cannot go down two roads at once, there is no way to be certain where different choices would have led” (2).

The last stanza in Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is perhaps the most important regarding the theme and symbolism found within the poem. When studying the lines below, one can see how many different interpretations have been made regarding the entire poem from this last stanza.

“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.”

In line sixteen, the first line of the last stanza, Frost’s choice of the word “sigh” leads some to believe that his future become of the road he ultimately took, is a grim one. That he is regretful because his outcome in life is unhappy, and it can be traced back to that day in the woods. An interpretive article written by Terry Andrews implies the choice “has made all the difference” allowing that the “difference” was for the worse (1).

However, rather than regarding the “sigh” as a purely negative word, it could just as easily been seen as a sigh of relief, or perhaps a sigh of resignation, with each choice one makes, the circumstances of the other is lost, and therefore it is impossible to know what could have been (6). It seems to be the speaker’s “sigh” resonates with the latter. His human curiosity burns within him, regardless of which choice was made, he would still want to know what possibilities in life he passed by.

The fact that one choice made between two roads which initially seemed so equal, can actually make “all the difference,” symbolizes the power of possibilities and circumstance in life. “Way,” does indeed “lead on to way,” and there is no turning back. A path in life that seems to be the same as another contains subtle differences that lead to different outcomes. It is the nature of humanity, with its innate curiosity, and regretful demeanor that makes it difficult for a person to be completely content with the road he chooses to take in life. Regardless of the opportunities he gained along his way, the simple fact that he will never know what could have been, that he will never know what he may have missed in his journey of life, will leave him always wondering of “The Road Not Taken.”


Work Cited

1. Andrews, Terry L. “The Road Not Taken.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 8 Mar. 2011

2. Bouchard, Jennifer. “Literary Contexts in Poetry: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Literary Contexts in Poetry: Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ (2008): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 8 Mar. 2011.

3. Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 1095-96. Print.

4. George, W. “Frost’s The Road Not Taken.” Explicator 49.4 (1991): 230. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 8 Mar. 2011.

5. Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. 1984.“On The Road Not Taken.” Modern American Poetry. Web. 8 Mar. 2011.

6. The Road Not Taken. (2001). In Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. CredoReference. Web. 8 Mar. 2011

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Comments 22 comments

J Burgraff profile image

J Burgraff 5 years ago

I think this poem seems a bit a sad reflection, but I thing too it is an augur. I read it at my sister's wedding and I did so as a blessing, that being that she chose a path, a good path, and ten years later, it has made all the difference.


summerclark7387 profile image

summerclark7387 5 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon Author

This has always been a poem that I have really enjoyed. I've always thought that the seemingly unimportant choices we make in life in the end do... make all the difference!

Thanks for your comment J Burgraff!


Storm1995 5 years ago

This is one poem everyone should read and then reflect upon. Making choices in life should always be made with cognitive awareness since one cannot go back to try a different path. Robert Frost puts this in perspective and your interpretation is "spot on"!


summerclark7387 profile image

summerclark7387 5 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon Author

Thank you Storm1995! I'm glad for the feedback :)


LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 5 years ago

This always was a favorite poem of mine to teach to my middle schoolers. Your interpretation of it is very interesting. I like pointing out to the kids the point in life in which the poet comes to the fork in the road: he is walking in a 'yellow wood', indicating it is autumn, the middle age part of life, when you are more able to make such decisions without following the crowd. I also think the sigh at the end is more of the sound of an eldery person's voice at the end of a life, when it is whispery without much strength behind it. It's the sound element of the poem.

Nice hub! Voted up.


summerclark7387 profile image

summerclark7387 5 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon Author

Very interesting LearnFromMe, I didn't come across interpretations such as yours while doing my research for this paper. Connecting the "yellow wood" with middle age is a great thought, and I enjoy your interpretation of the "sigh." Most other interpretations of it argue that it is negative.

Thanks so much for sharing :)


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

Thanks for this great hub which leaves much food for thought.

I have to vote up.

I now look forward to many more by you.

Take Care Addaenjoy your day.

Eddy.


kashif ahmed 4 years ago

actual poem of life


albatros333 profile image

albatros333 4 years ago from San Diego

I'm going to disagree that the sigh is a sigh of relief. To me the most interesting aspect of this poem is its title, which indicates that Frost is lamenting the road not taken. And therefore, it is a sigh of regret and not relief.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

I remembering memorizing this poem in elementary school, and we actually sang it at my high school graduation. Very interesting hub. Voted up and interesting. I guess it is just human nature to always wonder about the road not taken, but that's all we can do, as the past is the past. Faith Reaper


ThunderKeys profile image

ThunderKeys 4 years ago

Wow, sounds like you really know poetry! I'm new to it.

I'd like to invite you to contribute a couple of verses to this continuous love poem:

http://hubpages.com/forum/topic/96420#post2057006


smga22 profile image

smga22 4 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Thanks for this nice hub.


siya 4 years ago

hai it is sweet and lovely


ROSU 4 years ago

ITS A WONDER FULL POEM , THERE IS A LOT FOR THINKING TOO, THANK YOU FOR SUCH A POEM.

I AM FROM KERALA


Melissa Yandell 4 years ago

dont we all?


Melissa Yandell 4 years ago

its human nature to wonder if? When i walk in woods I always take less traveled, its more challenging ! just like my life. Isn't that what it says?


dhengotswag 4 years ago

amazing poem and very beatifull


HoneyBB profile image

HoneyBB 3 years ago from Illinois

This is an awesome interpretation of one of my favorite poems. I totally agree with your analysis of it. Thanks for sharing.


AshleyMonroe 3 years ago

What does the woods symbolize???

PLEASE HELP (as soon as possible)


summerclark7387 profile image

summerclark7387 3 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon Author

My interpretation is that the woods symbolize life and the world, and the path that we choose to take through the woods symbolizes the journey we take as we progress through life. Just my personal interpretation, hope it helps!


Dh 3 years ago

How can I source this article. I need an author name


summerclark7387 profile image

summerclark7387 3 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon Author

Hello Dh, this is my article and my name is Summer Clark. I am happy that you have decided to cite my work, however, I just want to be sure that it is not recreated in its entirety. You are welcome to use a few short quotes though, and if you would like to link to this page that would be great. Thank you for taking the time to check my name!

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