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Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Updated on May 8, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" has been one of the most anthologized, analyzed, and quoted poems in American poetry. Published in 1916 in Robert Frost’s poetry collection titled, Mountain Interval, “The Road Not Taken,” has since been interpreted primarily as piece that prompts non-conforming behavior, a philosophy of the efficacy of striking out on one’s own, instead of following the herd. Thus it is often quoted at commencement ceremonies.

However, a close look at the poem reveals a slightly different focus. Instead of offering a moralizing piece of advice, the poem merely demonstrates how memory often glamorizes past choices despite the fact that the difference between the choices were not so great. It also shows how the mind tends to focus on the choice one had to abandon in favor of the one selected.

Edward Thomas and "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost lived in England from 1912 to 1914; he became fast friends with fellow poet, Edward Thomas. Frost has suggested that "The Road Not Taken" was inspired by Thomas, who would continue to fret over the path the couple could not take as they were out walking in the woods near their village.

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.

Frost Reading "The Road Not Taken"

Commentary

Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken" "very tricky"; readers have not heeded his advice to be careful with this one; thus a misunderstanding brings this poem into places for which it is not suitable.

First Stanza: The Decision and the Process of Deciding

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;

In the first stanza, the speaker reveal that he has been out walking in the woods when he approaches two roads; he stops and peers down each road as far as he can. He then claims that he would like to walk down each road, but he is sure he does not have enough time to experience both. He knows he must take one road, and so his decision making process begins.

Second Stanza: The Reluctant Choice

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,

After scrutinizing both roads, he decides to start walking down the one that seems "less traveled." He admits they were “really about the same.” They were, of course, not exactly the same, but in reality there was not much difference between them. Both roads had been “traveled,” but he fancies that he chooses the one because it was a little less traveled than the other.

Notice at this point how the actual choice in the poem seems to deviate from the title. The speaker takes the road less taken, not actually the one “not taken,” as the title seems to claim. Of course, the title also lends to the moralizing interpretation. The road not taken is the one not taken by the speaker—both roads have been taken by others, but the speaker being just one individual could take only one.

Third Stanza: Really More Similar Than Different

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.

Because the decision making process can be complex and lengthy, the speaker continues to reveal his thinking about the two roads into the third stanza. But again he reports how the roads were really more similar than different.

Fourth Stanza: The Ambiguous Sigh

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 the final stanza, the speaker projects how he will look back on his decision in the distant future. He surmises that he will remember taking a “less traveled” road, and that decision “has made all the difference."

The problem with interpreting the poem as advice for individualism and non-conformity is that the speaker is only speculating about how his decision will affect his future. He cannot know for certain that his decision was a wise one, because he has not yet lived it. Even though he predicts that he will think it was a positive choice when he says, it “made all the difference,” a phrase that usually indicates a good difference, in reality, he cannot know for sure.

The use of the word, “sigh,” is also ambiguous. A sigh can indicate relief or regret—two nearly opposite states of mind. Therefore, whether the sigh comports with a positive difference or negative cannot be known to the speaker at the time he is musing in the poem. He simply has not lived the experience yet.

"Tricky Poem"

Frost referred to this poem as a tricky poem, and he admonished readers "to be careful of that one." He knew that human memory tends to gloss over past mistakes and glamorize the trivial. He also was aware that a quick, simplistic perusal of the poem could yield an erroneous understanding of it.

The poet also has stated that this poem reflects his friend Edward Thomas' attitude while out walking in the wood near London, England. Thomas continued to wonder what he might be missing by not being able to walk both routes, thus the title’s emphasis on the road “not taken.”

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Life Sketch of Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas was born in London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. He attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London, and after he graduated, he took the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, Thomas discovered his intense interest in writing, and instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes. In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life . Thomas had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.

In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree. Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. His earnings were meager and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years. Luckily for Thomas' writing, the family's move to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep Village provided positive influence on his writing about landscapes. The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas, who had suffered melancholy breakdowns because of his inability to engage in his favorite creative writing interests.

Friendship with Robert Frost

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments, Questions, Suggestions

Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Romeos, for your kind response. It's always gratifying for a writer to find out their writing is useful to others. Also thank you for becoming a follower.

  • Romeos Quill profile image

    Romeos Quill 

    3 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

    The exploratory nature of your Hub article I thought was very good, particularly;

    "... the poem merely demonstrates how memory often glamorizes past choices despite the fact that the difference between the choices were not so great. It also shows how the mind tends to focus on the choice one had to abandon in favor of the one selected. "

    These sentences seem to account for a great deal of the substance of poetry which you explained very succinctly for a dunderhead like me and your exposition of Mr. Frost's four stanzas were as clear as day with your no-nonsense elucidation.

    Thank you for an interesting read and for your support;

    With kind Regards;

    R.Q.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks, whoru!

  • whonunuwho profile image

    whonunuwho 

    3 years ago from United States

    One of my favorite poets and very inspiring. Thanks for sharing. whonu

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