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Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken": The Meaning You Never Knew Until Now
Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."
By only hearing these seven words, most of us know exactly what is being quoted from. From Robert Frost's arguably most popular poem comes words that most consider to be inspirational and hopefiled. Because what could be more inspiring than a poem about taking your own path and marching to the beat of your own drum?
Nothing, of course. That is precisely why it is held in such high regard.
But what if I told you that there was more to the poem? Something deeper and darker than most would like to percieve? What if I told you that the reality of the poem was not as uplifting and inspirational as common belief often makes it out to be?
Maybe you don't believe me, but no matter, because now you are curious. So please, allow me to explain...
Two Paths, Equally Traveled
The last lines of the poem are the most famous. They state that the narrator of the poem took the road less traveled by, and that is what has "made all the difference." Naturally, the poem is assumed to refer to life, which is true. However, that is as far as popular assumption is correct.
The most popular analysis of the poem goes more or less like this:
The speaker, at an important turning point in his life, has surveyed both paths that he could take and settled upon taking the path that is not necessarily the most popular path, but is the path that he believed was right, and that is what has made all the difference in his life: not being influenced by societal conventions and instead "marching to the beat of his own drum."
Let's start from the beginning of this viewpoint.
He surveyed both the paths. Yes, indeed he did. But what exactly was it that he saw?
Path 1: "And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;"
Path 2: "Then took the other, as just as fair,/And perhaps having the better claim,/Because it was grassy and wanted wear;"
So path 1 was "bent in undergrowth" and path 2 was "grassy and wanted wear." In essence, Frost was saying the same thing in two different ways, because he was describing two different paths. He even tells the reader this in this snippit by saying that after studying the first path, he went to study the second path, which was "just as fair", or in other words, was
in the same condition as the other.
Now, at this point, skeptics must be thinking that I am missing something. What about the line "And perhaps having the better claim" in reference to the second path? Surely this means that the second path is different.
Well, actually, it doesn't. The line is "And perhaps having the better claim." It does not say that it does without a doubt have the better claim, whether that mean the better option for him to choose or the better travelers or what have you, it says that it simply could potentially have the better claim. He is merely speculating that the second path could be different than the first, because he does not actually know, having never traveled either of the paths before.
Still not convinced? Then I wonder what you make of this:
"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."
If the lines before hadn't been direct enough, then these lines are like a perfect bullseye. How much clearer could Frost have been in explaining that the paths are the same? He clearly states, right in the text of the poem, that the passing on both paths were the same, and that they were lying equally before him with neither more trodden than the other.
It is an undenible fact that somehow always goes unnoticed: neither path was, in reality, traveled more than the other; they were the same.
Truth and Deception
This realization of the two roads brings me to the last stanza, which is home to the most famous lines of the poem that I mentioned earlier:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference."
If both paths were equal, neither traveled less than the other, then you must be wondering how in the world I could possibly explain these lines. It seems as though, after everything I have said about the rest of the poem, that these last few lines contradict all the rest of my evidence. However, that is not the case all.
It is true, this poem is about life, just as you all originally expected. The difference is that Frost is not saying that taking the less popular road is what made his life worth it, he is depicting how a human brain works in regards to reflecting upon life. At the point of making a choice, once you go down one path, you will not go back down the other (as he says in the poem: "Oh, I kept the first for another day!/Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back."), which means that, after we choose one path, we will never know what would have been had we chosen the other path. After the fact, when we are reflecting back on our choices, we say to console ourselves that we had chosen the more respectable, satisfying, or successful path. We are afraid of regretting our past, afraid of thinking that we could have had something better if only we had chosen the other road, so instead, we attempt to comfort ourselves by saying that we took the better road in the end. But we don't really know; we didn't travel the other path.
You see, the reality of the poem is a truth that we don't want to hear. It is telling us that we are kidding ourselves by saying that we took the better trail, we are just trying to make ourselves feel better about our decisions when there is no longer anything that we can do about it. But the majority of society sees it as something much more hopeful and inspirational, which just reinforces the fact that Frost is trying to get at with this poem: in society, it isn't about the truth, it is about justifying what is more attractive, regardless of the truth.
Now, I will admit that for the longest time, I had believed the idealistic version of this poem, because, well, that is all I had ever been taught. But one day, someone was able to open my eyes to a new way of looking at the world, starting with this poem, and others like it.
Maybe you won't accept this viewpoint, and that's okay. I am merely the giver of information, and now it is up to you to determine the truth for yourself.