A Poem Most Mistaken: A Guide to Interpreting ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost

Let’s take a brief look at Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, which may be one of the most frequently misinterpreted poems of all time.

Photo by Longzijun
Photo by Longzijun

“But interpretation is subjective, so it cannot be wrong. One interpretation is not better than another,” come the howls of protest.

There are, however, two kinds of ‘bad’ interpretation. In the first kind, the reader assigns meaning to a poem or story and does not provide any evidence from the text to back it up. In the second kind of ‘bad’ interpretation, the reader only selects a fragment of the work and ignores everything else.

When discussing this poem, many readers fall into the second trap—selective interpretation—and focus on the last three lines only.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If you just look at these three lines, the poem is an easy-to-understand inspirational message about daring to take risks. This is the most common interpretation, and I used to interpret the poem in this way. Focusing on these three lines is understandable because in many poems, especially sonnets, the last few lines sum up the message of the poem. However, not all poems are structured in this way.

The Road Not Taken is twenty lines long and Robert Frost himself mentioned that it was a ‘tricky poem to understand’.

The Poem

Let’s look at the whole poem first.

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.

Guide to Interpreting the Poem

I think we can agree that the poem uses choosing a path to represent making a choice in life, but what is the actual message? Here is a series of prompts to help you in your analysis.

1. Was one road really “less traveled by” (i.e., less used)?
In line 8, the narrator describes the road he chose as ‘grassy and wanted wear”. Other lines, in contrast, emphasize how similar the roads really are:

  • the roads are “just as fair” (line 6),
  • the less-traveled road becomes “worn really about the same” after ONLY ONE PERSON (the narrator) takes it (lines 9-10); now if only one person walking on a path one time makes it ‘worn about the same’ as the path, obviously both paths were basically the same in turns of the amount of wear,
  • and the two roads were “equally” covered in leaves (lines 11-12)

Were the roads very different from one another or more or less the same? The poem is twenty lines long and five of those lines are used to state how similar the paths are.

2 Why does the poem include this conflicting information?
The repetition of how similar the roads are suggests that the two roads are not that different at all. If that is the case, why would the narrator, years later, say how different they are? If you take the opposing point of view and assume the roads really are different, why would the narrator thrice mention how similar they are? In any case, no matter what you believe, any ‘good’ interpretation of the poem has to take into consideration this obvious contradiction within the poem.

3. Why does the writer emphasize the long passage of time?
This carries on from the previous question. A lot of time passes or will pass (“ages and ages hence”) between actually taking the road and then talking about the differences between the two roads and how important it was to choose the less-traveled one. Does the narrator expect that the older version of himself will:

  • Gain a better understanding over time (i.e., understanding that things that didn’t seem important really were important)?
  • Embellish stories to justify decisions or actions made a long time ago (i.e., stating that something that happened was important when really it didn’t make much difference)?

Or is there another way in which the passage of time will play a part?

4. What exactly is ‘the difference’ mentioned in the last line?

  • Is it a positive thing (i.e., the narrator thinks choosing that road will be for the best)?
  • Is it a negative thing (i.e, the narrator will regret choosing that road)?
  • Is it ambiguous (i.e., the choice was very important, but it is unknown whether it was for the better)
  • Is it meant in an ironic way (i.e., there really was no big difference, and the narrator, later in life, is just making a mountain out of a molehill)?

5. Similarly, why does the narrator think that he will sigh when retelling the story many years later?

  • Is it an expression of satisfaction (for choosing the best path)?
  • Is it an expression of regret (for choosing the wrong path)?
  • Is it an expression of sadness over the long passage or time?
  • Is there another possible reason?

6. Why does the narrator take so long to decide on a path?
The time is mentioned in the 3rd line, and a large amount of the poem itself (lines 3-8 and lines 13-15) is devoted to describing the process of choosing.

  • Is the narrator showing careful deliberation (choosing wisely)?
  • Is the narrator simply showing indecision (taking too long to choose)?
  • Does it show something else?

7. Which road does the title refer to and why is this the title?
Does ‘The Road Not Taken’  refer to road the narrator did not take or to the other road? Why do you suppose the poet chose this as the title?

Once you have thought about all these points, you should be able to form a robust interpretation.

You could also go further and do some research into what inspired Robert Frost to write the poem and who it is believed to be written about. I won’t go into that as once you know the background of this particular poem, the room for personal interpretation becomes much more limited (He was writing about a specific event and a specific person and a specific choice).

~ by longzijun

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