• The Road Not Taken

    Some time ago, I helped my pupil with her first homework in English literature. It was a study of Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken". The homework consisted in answering questions about the text, which was supposed to lead us to understand it better. So first, here's the poem:


    The Road Not Taken

    by Robert Frost, 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 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.


    The analysis that we did at the end of the answer sheet (which included a short biography of Robert Frost), was that this poem reflected on his own life. As he was said in his biography to have been a "pioneer" in poetry, we assumed that the "road less traveled by" was the road of inovation, as opposed to the mainstream road of doing established forms of art. And it seems that this is a mainstream interpretation of the poem indeed.

    And surely, the 3 last lines of the poem would make a very inspirational quote/meme, such as:

    The Road Not Taken


    The last question asked us to "explain the idea of contradiction in the poem" and we decided it was in the fact that the title reads "the road NOT taken", but most of the poem is about the road that was actually taken. I then noted that it could be read the other way around, that is, that the "road not taken" might be understood as "not taken before I took it", and might therefore stand for the road that he DID take. Anyway, this seemed to confirm that in literature, you can never be sure what the poet exactly meant to express, and we were content with this conclusion.

    When I got home that night, I decided to do some research, in order to check whether I had led my pupil in a wrong interpretation of the poem. From what I read, ours is quite common, and I think it is what the questions were trying to lead us to understand. But I then found other interpretations. Here comes:


    from Shmoop

    Lines 9-10

    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    • The speaker of this poem really can't seem to make up his mind! Just when we think we've got a declaration about which path is better, he changes his mind and admits that maybe they were equal after all.
    • The "as for that" refers to the path being less worn.


    Lines 11-12

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.

    • Here, again, we hear that the paths are equal, but we find out something new, that it's morning. It's possible that our speaker is the first to travel to this place on that day.
    • The paths are covered with leaves, which haven't been turned black by steps crushing them.
    • Wait, we thought one path was grassy…and now it's covered with leaves. Possibly, the leaves aren't very thick, or the grass sticks up in between them. Or maybe the speaker isn't being quite honest.


    This first reading introduced a reflection about honesty and truth in the poem. Indeed, the narrator contradicts himself quite often in the poem. The second paths first "wanted wear", then the passing "had worn them really about the same, and both that morning equally lay", but in the end, the narrator states again that "I took the one less traveled by". Where does the truth lie, amidst all these different assertions?

    Then, there's also the comment about morning. "Morning", as a metaphor, may stand for the beginning of life or of the journey, but the leaves are "yellow", hence, it's automn, which stands for closing on to the end, nightfall / twilight, before the dark of winter. It seems that there is another contradiction here: when is the metaphor set?


    from Baroncini-Moe

    [Stanza 4] is the most telling stanza of the poem. It talks about how we rewrite our own histories. We tell stories and revise our memories as if decisions were made differently than they really were. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence” means someday, down the road, when I’m old and telling stories about my past, I’ll sigh and say that I took the road less traveled by and that’s what “made all the difference” in how my life turned out.

    But we, the readers, know that it wasn’t taking that road that made the difference. In fact, that road that I took, it wasn’t any less traveled by than the first. We know that from the first and second stanzas. The roads were the same.


    This poem is so much more complex than just “Hey, I took a road that most people don’t take, and that has made my life better and that’s why I got all the amazing results I got in my life.” The message is far more like, “I took a road. It could’ve been another road. But this is the one I took. One day, I’ll say that it was this choice, in this moment, to take this particular road that made my life better, but in fact, both roads weren’t very different from one another, so my life might’ve been different if I’d taken the other road, but probably would’ve yielded other cool stuff."


    Well, I think this is rather self-explanatory, so I'm not going to comment on it.


    As a conclusion, I would like to say that it took me years, but I finally got to really enjoy literature and literary analysis, although it is sometimes (often...) hard to know when we are going too far...

    But I guess literature is not only about writing, it's also about reading, and again, it took me years to understand this, but once a work of art - may it be a novel, a painting or whatever - is presented to the public - and this is true even when the artist gives an explanation of his work - the spectator/reader becomes an actor in the reception of the work's meaning: they may miss the point or part of it, or they may see something else. And can someone blame them for being inspired by a piece of art even though it was not meant to inspire them in this way?

    I guess this is what this poem is about - or rather, I have decided what it is about according to me: it may be about decision-making or lying to oneself in one's reminiscing of a personal choice, but it is also about interpretation - interpretation of the choice's effects or interpretation of the poem itself.


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