Frost's Road Not Taken: An Analysis

(Tuesday, January 23, 2007, 6:09 a.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost from 'Mountain Interval' (1916)

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 onto 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.


Yes, this is a warhorse of a poem, one everyone has probably heard at least once, but it one that resonates with me to a point close to tears. This poem is often misunderstood as being an exultation of the power of taking a bold step into the unknown and winning happiness. I think it is no such thing. It is an expression of anxiety and regret, with just the barest hint of a terrible loneliness. It is also largely about the blindness of choice, about the way the little, seemingly insignificant decisions we make can be magnified into glory or tragedy and we never really know which faces us.

Consider the evidence. The narrator has taken a path that really looked about the same as the one he forswore since both were covered in yellow leaves that no step had really left mud on (trodden black). It was, however, just a bit less traveled, having just a little more grass on it. On these narrow differences, the narrator chose, and now he looks forward to the future and speculates on what the consequences will be of his choice. Is the narrator really comfortable with his choice? Why is the poem entitled "The Road Not Taken"? Why will he be telling of his choice with a sigh rather than with proud declamation? Perhaps it may be a sigh of relief that he has barely managed to avert the disaster that might have occurred had he taken the other path. But I think he is sighing because he expects that when he reaches the end of the road, he will have little company to keep because it is the less traveled road, and he has forsaken the road that would have put him more among his fellow men. The irony is that the roads really looked about the same to him when he made the choice, so he knows he might just as easily have picked the other. He is afraid he has made the wrong choice, and is regretting it already in advance. There is some room for a more positive interpretation of the poem, some real ambiguity, but the evidence seems to me to weigh in favor of the narrator's anxiety and regret. (In fact, Frost in an interview apparently said that he was inspired to write this poem by a friend of his that was always second-guessing himself about things he had or hadn't done, avenues he had or hadn't explored.)

If you haven't heard American composer Randall Thompson's choral arrangement of some of Frost's poems, "Frostiania", I highly recommend it. I think his ending of "The Road Not Taken" is astute, capturing the ambiguity of the poem, but settling on the meaning the poet probably more intended. He repeats the line, "And that has made all the difference." The first time, he ends on a major chord which breathes a sense of quiet cheer, but in the repeat he ends on the parallel minor chord and the piece ends with a dark, wintry chill where you can almost hear and see the snow blowing through the trees at dusk, and feel the coldness of the scene. Winter must follow the yellow leaves of autumn, and the narrator, in the end, is caught outside in the blizzard rather than being indoors by the fire.

It's easy to hear a recitation of Robert Frost, think "oh it's that famous poem about woods or roads or apple-picking", and totally miss the depth of meaning in the works. Frost's imagery and diction are generally crystal clear, unlike many of his contemporaries. But you always have to ask yourself what aspect of the human condition is he likely to be talking about beneath the placid, pastoral imagery. Ask yourself what the objects in the scene correspond to in the human condition and what the allegory suggests. Once you do this, you often find that Frost's poems aren't so simple, aren't so tranquil, but reflect a quite melancholy and even anxious world-view, one in which the universe is not so terribly kind and life labors always under the shadow of Fate, death, time, etc.

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