(A quick note: while the gender of the speaker remains undetermined, I sometimes use the masculine for the sake of simplicity and consistency. It seems easier than having to repeatedly use “the speaker”, or singular they, or worse, “him/her”.)
Ask anyone to create a list of poems they’ve read, know or remember from school, and even on a very short list Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is almost certain to be. From high-schoolers to middle-schoolers to college graduates, it’s almost certain to be the one of those most vividly remembered. And it’s almost certain to be the one they’ve most sincerely misread. Most likely, they will tell you that the poem is about learning to be an individual, or not following the pack, blazing your own trail, yadda, yadda, yadda. And they’d be wrong. The poem is often misidentified as “The Road Less Travelled” and there’s even popular country song by that title (go on, check your Twitter or Instagram feed and see how many hashtags use TRLT), which, yes, would make it all about the conquest of individualism. However, the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken”, which produces, in fact, a meaning quite contrary to what most people think. The poem is not about rugged individualism overcoming running with the pack; the poem is about avoiding despair by making meaning out of a potentially meaningless existence. Frost constructs a speaker in the poem who shows readers that it’s not individual choices that matter; it’s the stories we tell ourselves about those choices.
One of the first things readers ought to acknowledge is that while the poem begins in the past tense—“Two roads diverged”— as well as looks forward to the future—“I shall be telling”— it takes place “now”, in the present. Thus, the poem is neither a strict reflection of what was, nor of what will be, but must be read as something happening now, in the day-to-day. It must therefore be thought of as a poem about the choices we daily make. Frost’s speaker literally finds himself in the middle of life as he looks both forward and back. In using past, present and future in this poem, Frost suggests to his audience the quotidian nature of the choices they face: it’s not one road, it’s the many we must choose, continuously throughout our lives. Another concession readers must make is the first-person narrative, which lends to the poem a more subjective point of view than would be the case if the poem were written in the third person. Thus, we must question the speaker’s motives for relaying this information and ask to whom they are relaying it? Who is the intended audience, particularly later in life, “ages and ages hence”? Is it a child or grandchild? Is it a random person at a social or community event? Or is it possible that this is the story the speaker will tell himself as I have maintained is the case?
To better understand the nature of this problem, it’s important to read the road as a metaphor for life. This is not so contentious. Most would agree that this is exactly what the poet had in mind. In fact, this is generally how readers understand the poem and how it’s taught. If one path leads to college and the other to a career in a trade, one’s life will be affected differently by those choices. Choosing to be with one partner in life over another is yet another. We make all kinds of choices each day. How do we know which ones matter?
The poem attempts to answer that question by taking the singular, perhaps momentous decision, and turning it into a generic, everyday choice. The speaker faces the dilemma of having to choose one road over the other; he examines, to the best of his ability, the trajectory of both and considers which to follow: “long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth”. Then, something interesting happens; for the first time in the poem he constructs a narrative about his life that doesn’t coincide with reality; in other words, he tells himself a story. After looking down one path, he decided to take “the other, as just as fair, / And having perhaps the better claim, / Because it wanted wear”. At first these paths look different; clearly, one road wants wear because fewer people choose to travel that route. Upon closer inspection, however, the speaker reveals something that readers all too often overlook or forget by the time they reach the end of the poem. He suddenly realizes, “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” (emphasis mine). Equally lay, the speaker tells us. So, by the end of the poem it is not true, either literally nor in terms of the metaphor that Frost uses, that the speaker’s life is better for having chosen the path of the few. It is better simply because he tells himself it’s better.
In many ways Frost acknowledges not only the accidental nature of life, but also the soul-crushing doubt of the arbitrary. Recall that when faced with the moment of the path’s divergence the speaker could not see what lay ahead: “looked down one as far as I could”. We may be able to see the immediate future with respect to many of our choices, but to see farther down the road, to where the path bends in the undergrowth, becomes difficult, perhaps impossible. This represents the unknown. In the moment where the path forces the speaker to choose, one road looks as good as the other and the speaker chooses based on whim, fancy or perhaps a gut feeling. The speaker even tells himself that he will come back another day to travel the other road, “I kept the first for another day!” Readers must keep in mind that at this point, the road not taken, the road he kept for another day, is the road the poem is about. This moment signifies/acknowledges regret, an opportunity lost. He knows that choosing one path means leaving all others behind. One traveler cannot take two roads. (Unless you’re from Massachusetts and have ever traveled on 93 south of Boston.) In this moment of not knowing the speaker experiences doubt: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”, to be able to make this choice again. In these two lines of poetry Frost captures the human condition: what if?
But if Frost exposes the desolation of the human condition, he does not neglect to provide readers without a solution. In a moment of what can only described as self-reflective cognitive reverie, the speaker looks forward to the future, towards hope, and not back in despair of what might have been: “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 does not romanticize the choice of the speaker in choosing one road over the other. The poem is not to be read as a man standing at a cross-road in life momentously and triumphantly choosing the road less traveled because it is the right choice. The poem shows a man sadly reminiscing about choices he has made. It also shows the power of narrative. It shows a man overcoming regret through the power of shaping his own story out of lived events. The difference the speaker relates is not in the choosing of any one choice in his life, so few of which possess any real significance: what will I have for breakfast? Should I take the back roads or the highway to work? Khakis or jeans? Business or business casual? Three buttons or two? Regular or premium? The difference the speaker relates is of the shaping of the narrative of that choice. We forge our own meaning out of the detritus and slag of life’s chaos. The speaker, in telling himself the choice had a positive impact on his life, makes meaning out of meaninglessness. That is the nature of the “sigh” as well as the pause caused by the hyphen in the third to last line of the poem. He pauses; then consciously chooses to tell himself, perhaps others, that the moment he chose one road over another has made him the man he is today. We are the stories we tell ourselves. Tell yourself an awesome, kick-ass story! And get out there.