The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963
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.
Everyone can quote those final two lines. But everyone, writes David Orr in his book “The Road Not Taken” (Penguin Press), gets the meaning wrong.
The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.
Except Frost notes early in the poem that the two roads were “worn . . . really about the same.” There is no difference. It’s only later, when the narrator recounts this moment, that he says he took the road less traveled.
“This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes.
“The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”
Wrongly referred to by many as “The Road Less Traveled,” the poem’s true title, “The Road Not Taken,” references regret rather than pride. That’s by design. Frost wrote it as somewhat of a joke to a friend, English poet Edward Thomas.
In 1912, Frost was nearly 40 and frustrated by his lack of success in the United States. After Thomas praised his work in London, the two became friends, and Frost visited him in Gloucestershire. They often took walks in the woods, and Frost was amused that Thomas always said another path might have been better. “Frost equated [it] with the romantic predisposition for ‘crying over what might have been,’ ” Orr writes, quoting Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson.
Frost thought his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and protest, ‘Stop teasing me,’ ” Thompson writes.
He didn’t. Like readers today, Thomas was confused by it and maybe even thought he was being lampooned.
One Edward Thomas biographer suggested that “The Road Not Taken” goaded the British poet, who was indecisive about joining the army.
“It pricked at his confidence . . . the one man who understood his indecisiveness most acutely — in particular, toward the war — appeared to be mocking him for it,” writes Matthew Hollis.
Thomas enlisted in World War I, and was killed two years later.
Orr writes that “The Road Not Taken” is “a thoroughly American poem. The ideas that [it] holds in tension — the notion of choice, the possibility of self-deception — are concepts that define . . . the United States.”
It is also, as critic Frank Lentricchia writes, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
I have always equated this poem with what Jesus says during the Sermon on the Mount about the narrow gate. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says “13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Frost’s religious beliefs have long been speculated upon. Raised by a mother who was a follower of Swedenborgianism, a Swedish mystical belief, many of Frost’s biographers have noted his apparent atheism or agnosticism. But he was deeply interested in Christianity.
Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College and a prominent Frost scholar Jay Parini said that “Robert Frost called himself an ‘Old Testament Christian. Which meant he was really more focused on the Torah and the old Biblical stories. Things like the Book of Job, the first five books of Moses, the Book of Proverbs and the Psalms were hugely important to Frost as a poet, a man and a thinker.”