The first thing I want to note about “The Road Not Taken” is that it is not “The Road Less Traveled,” the title of the M. Scott Peck self-help pot-boiler derived from the Frost original.
Listen To This Story
“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason” — Novalis
“The Road Not Taken” is an old poetic warhorse you may remember from high school English. Before exploring what Robert Frost had in mind, I’m going to reconvene class and ask you to participate in a simple exercise — a “quiz,” if you will.
Read through the poem and identify its most important line (I’m leaving what I mean by “important” intentionally vague). And think through the implications if that line were absent or altered.
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.
The first thing I want to note about “The Road Not Taken” is that it is not “The Road Less Traveled,” the title of the best-selling 1978 M. Scott Peck self-help pot-boiler derived from the 1915 Frost original. That adoption has led to what I think is a very common misconception that the sentiment of Frost’s poem is something along the lines of “Be courageous, not conventional! Don’t go with the herd and may the less traveled road rise to meet you!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such advice — which might be given by a latter-day Polonius to a young Laertes, and which has found its way into countless Hallmark graduation cards — but it’s a long, long way from what Frost was trying to communicate.
Frost was a rather dark poet (albeit with a pungent sense of humor), one who would never be caught simplistically romanticizing the Vermont that elected him its first poet laureate or the nation whose de facto poet laureate he was for decades. His family life was death-marred and harsh and he wrote lucidly and movingly of death and harshness in life. Consider the sardonic musing of “Fire and Ice”:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
So we should not expect of any Frost poem a rah-rah paean to the Polonian or Peckian virtues — and “The Road Not Taken” does not disappoint. In light of which, what is the line on which the poem turns?
My answer is:
Line 10: “…Had worn them really about the same…”
Because what Frost is telling us (and tells us again, in case we missed it, in line 11!) is that the roads — the choices — were indistinguishable.
That in itself may seem innocuous enough: One road might have looked more grassy and less traveled, and Frost is honestly letting us know that such was not the case. Score a point for truth telling!
But then comes the darkness. Born in 1874, Frost is here writing as a relatively young man — or at least as a man with life choices and miles of road before him. He suspects, to the point of knowing, that, his choice once made, there will be no undoing, no taking the other way. His choice is of a certain subspecies of choice, the irrevocable. Way will lead on to way, and:
“I doubted if I should ever come back.”
This all takes place in a “yellow wood,” a color choice and image that to me convey a haze, a blurring. And what is more subject to blurring than a life story — if not the events themselves (pace Facebook), then certainly the motives, impulses, and reasons behind them?
And sure enough, in the poem’s last stanza, we come to it: The poet sees himself “somewhere ages and ages hence,” an old man by the fire, near enough to death to sum his life — with a hint, too, of generations of humanity extending to a far distant future — telling the story of the roads and how he chose his path.
And what does he know he will do? He knows he will lie.
With “a sigh” — indicating that he has made peace with, perhaps even come to believe, his lie — and after a moment’s hesitation at the brink (that telling double “I”), he will attribute “all the difference,” the whole experience and significance of his life, to a choice he did not and could not make, one he had no basis for making, as we remember that there was no “road less traveled by.”
He will be driven to that soft but terrible lie by the awful, arbitrary cosmos itself, by its randomness, its refusal to crown our best laid plans, even the successful ones, with significance.
The walker, not far past the fork, knows that he will, one day, insist on meaning. And he knows that if there is to be meaning — if his life, as told, is to make logical, cause-and-effect sense — he will be obliged to create it. Out of whole cloth. That is, he will have to lie to do so, lie about what has “made all the difference.” In resorting to this construct — and so coloring himself intrepid, distinguished, extraordinary — he will refute and betray the truth of his life.
And he knows this in advance, knows the need for meaning will ultimately win out over all fealty to truth. He will live his life under this cloud. Perhaps it will be dispersed at the end with a sigh; perhaps not.
I don’t believe Frost meant to condemn his walker (or himself) for finding himself in this position and responding to it as he tells us he shall. He sees it as a human predicament — a mismatch of sorts between the two natures, human and cosmic. Denied the grounding of an intolerably arbitrary and meaningless reality, we live our lives, vertiginously and precariously, on the quicksand of our own glossing. For the vast majority of humans throughout recorded history, this glossing has leaned heavily on one or another religion, and legion are they who have lost peace and life in the wars fought among them.
Frost claimed he wrote “The Road Not Taken” as “a joke” for a good friend, the British critic and poet Edward Thomas, who, when they were walking together, was frequently indecisive about which road to take — and habitually expressed regret over his choice. Frost, however, was known to say “I am never more serious than when I am joking.” I submit this “joke” of a poem as Exhibit A.
“The Road Not Taken” was composed as the First World War dragged into its second year and, its trenches reeking of pointless death, shattered whatever illusions of peaceful coexistence had preceded it. The 38-year-old Thomas was soon to be one of its victims, killed in the Battle of Arras in 1917, as his first volume of poems was being prepared for publication.
I leave this dark, dark poem — as I leave most of Frost’s poetry — with compassion for myself, and for all beings who are conscious and mortal. We make up our own stories because we must.
Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.