The Road Not Taken - A Literary Analysis
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, c. 1916
The Road Not Taken (read by Naseerudhin Shah)
A Parody of the Human Ego?
Humans seem so prone to taking certain quotes and passages out of context and running with them, to the point that the error becomes the new phrase. For example, “I couldn't care less” is really supposed to be “I couldn’t care less”. One implies that there is a level of care that can be reduced, and the other insinuates that there is no amount of care left to diminish. No matter how many times you try to correct someone, the incorrect saying returns.
Another classic example is Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. People seem to only remember the last two lines and take it as a mantra of courage to be an individual in a faceless crowd or take a course of action that no one else would dare, and Frost knew that about the human spirit. In fact, it almost seems as if he makes a parody of that notion. However, Frost clearly states that both paths were equally worn. He also states that, in his future, he would probably recall the occasion with a sigh, as if to say that he knew that he would exaggerate the truth.
How About You?
Have you ever come to your own fork in the road? What path did you take?
Motivation for the Poem
One incorrect assumption about Frost’s motivation for the poem comes from his own family’s background. As the story was told, Frost rebelled his family’s urging to take over the family farm. Frost did indeed inherit his grandfather’s farm and worked it for nine years with little success. He also became a teacher like his father, who died when Frost was 11 years old. One explanation for the incorrect assumption might come from the fact that Frost left the farm and teaching behind in order to pursue a writing career by moving his family and himself to England. It might be said that this was his example of courage to take the path that others would be too afraid to try themselves.
For Frost, this gamble worked, because his poetry became very popular during his stint in England. In fact, he published two poetry collections in 1913 and 1914. After three years, Frost moved back to the United States, where he found much success as a writer, teacher, and lecturer. Ultimate success (for any writer) came in 1924 in the form of a Pulitzer Prize, which he would go on to win three more times.
Frost stated that one unfinished stanza for the poem was actually about a friend of his. He said:
“One stanza of ‘The Road Not Taken’ was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England. (It) was found three or four years later, and I couldn’t bear to finish it. I wasn’t thinking of myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”
This sentiment is not uncommon, especially with so many people labeled as “indecisive”. It is another aspect of the human condition. Not only must we exaggerate truth, but we do everything we can to not miss anything. We want our cakes and eat them too.
Frost on "The Road Not Taken"
"You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem - very tricky."
Just as Frost says, “The Road Not Taken” can be tricky in its understanding if someone reads it too fast and fails to fully process every word and the intending meanings. It is often suggested that poetry should be read aloud, even when the reader is alone, and “The Road Not Taken” is a perfect example for this advice. It is only through full understanding can a person learn and grow. Otherwise, that person becomes the epitome for the parody. Plus, you could always “take the road less traveled by” and actually quote Frost within the context he intended.
© 2014 Charles Dawson