Analyzing “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
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.
Every decision we make dismisses alternate decisions. Whether the decision determines which brand of salad dressing we buy or where we spend our four years of college — the decision will lead to our inability to taste another brand of salad dressing or experience another college. Decisions can be viewed as doors entered when made, and doors unopened when rejected. We can only make one decision, and thus, enter one door in a given moment. It’s impossible to turn two knobs at the same time or walk through two doors simultaneously. Thus, every door we enter is a sacrifice to another door that we’ll never be able to enter. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost laments the individuality and importance of every decision, big or small. Each door passed is a different person made.
Originally written in 1915, Frost was not intending for this poem to become one of America’s most profound. This poem was meant as an inside joke for a friend and hiking companion, Edward Thomas, who was indecisive about which route to take when encountering a fork. The setting of the poem enables a greater understanding with the vivid imagery and detailed wording broadening the poem’s application to real-world circumstances. Poems are most relatable when they are created in playful moods with moderate density, a poem made for a companion is a great melting pot of connections and simple for the audience to relate to. However, light poems can also be hard to interpret; reading the poem once will tell us it’s about a hike through the woods. Scouting the poetic devices, theme, and symbolism makes the retrieval of meaning more feasible.
Robert Frost’s poem follows iambic meter, allowing the reader to digest the poem with ease. “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;” (1–5, Frost). As noted with the first stanza, the poem follows a strict ABAAB rhyme scheme and iambic meter. After World War 1, Modernist poets started to move away from the traditional patterns of poetry and invent their own, known as “free verse.” Nevertheless, Frost stubbornly stuck to the traditional metrical forms (he referred to free verse as playing tennis with the “net down”). We note the same rhythm in the second stanza, “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,” (6–10, Frost). If Frost were to use an unconventional iambic meter, the flow would differ from the normal meter and force the reader to think in a modified manner. Thus, the structure and traditional implementations of this poem have given plasticity to the poem where the text, author, and reader can mold the overall meaning together.
Furthermore, by leveraging specific words and moments, the poem relays the importance of every decision — big or small. As used in the first line, “yellow wood” (1, Frost) magnifies one time and place, shedding light on the sizable influence one route in the woods has over another. Having taken one route, the traveler would not have experienced the texture, scenery, and general experience of the other path. Vice versa, having taken the alternate route, the traveler would have experienced different scenarios, and thus, been shaped differently. Similarly, Frost details the characteristics of one path, “Because it was grassy and wanted wear;” (8, Frost) reinforcing his careful analysis of both paths despite the matter and outcome being of low importance. With “yellow wood” being mentioned in the first line, we begin to internalize the hefty significance each decision has on our lives, learning to disregard the seeming nature of each decision. Every decision is notable and worthy of inspection.
“And sorry I could not travel both” (2, Frost); two routes cannot be parallel processed by one individual, just like two knobs can’t be turned at the same time. Between the two routes in the woods lie two realities, realities that can’t be lived together. Like the prior claim, the size of each decision and the experience it entails ties into the single reality we all live. With this line, everything is nailed into place. Not only does one decision carry a different experience than the other, but a shot at the other decision in the same moment is simply impossible. The subsequent line, “And be one traveler, long I stood” (3, Frost) emphasizes the “oneness” of a person and the sacrifice that comes with the handicap of one reality. The reality we live in is on account of a series of sacrifices in past decisions. Two routes can’t be traveled at once, two realities can’t be lived at once, two experiences are impossible at once. The one reality we choose determines the reality we live.
There isn’t always a second chance. Walking through the woods, the traveler encounters two similar routes that seem untouched by humanity. “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.” (13–15, Frost). The leaves on the floor are clear of disruption, with no sign of black residue from dirty shoes. Taking a chance on the second path, the traveler saves the first for another time. However, routes are interconnected, and alternate decisions that seemed faithful for another moment, are lost in time. Once the traveler opted for the second route, the first one, which the traveler initially saved for another time, was forgotten after routes led to further routes. Similarly, we often handle decisions lightly in the hope for a second round of experience, another chance to explore. Nonetheless, we remain attached to our initial decision, as routes interconnect and spare no time for a second chance. Impulsivity is enjoining in decisions that seem beneficial on the surface without diving deeper for true evaluation. Now is the time to refresh our best practices, let’s not be impulsive.
How about the element of time? In the fast-paced society we live in, decisions happen on a whim; left and right. Recalling decisions and pondering them isn’t a normal phenomenon — decisions live in the past. However, our current state of affairs is presumably a result of the decisions we made in the past. As noted earlier, a different decision in our lives would result in modified experiences, and thus, a modified self. As the poem nears its end, we ponder on the lost decisions that seem far in the past, intangible and insignificant. “Somewhere ages and ages hence” (17, Frost) we flipped a coin and may have said yes to a drug. Ages ago, addiction began, and it ceases to exist. One innocent decision in the past is a grievance of the present, the state of affairs we meddle in without choice. The fibers come together as the poem starts to close, bringing innocence of the past to critical affairs in the present. In the next line, “I took the one less traveled by,” (18, Frost) Frost uses the past tense to refer to the time the decision was made, confirming that our present state is a result of our past. Whether positive or negative, Frost’s element of time brings a grave perspective to the smooth sailing poem.
The final line sums the entirety of the poem, tying together its morals, “And that has made all the difference.” (20, Frost). Frost transitions from our past decisions to the present moment, focusing on the product of the past. From decisions to rejections, each of the doors we opened has created the person we are today. By traveling an alternate series of doors or routes, a difference in person would be inevitable. The line praises the traveler’s decision in certain routes, claiming it has shaped the traveler’s journey, making all the difference. A parallel is drawn to our past life decisions and the life we live today, shaping who we have become. We learn to tie dangling strings that exist in our lives to unnoticed strings we crocheted years ago. Each decision we make in the present moment is a venture that will continue decades forward. From the very first door entered to the very last, it has made all the difference.
With a simple analogy from the woods, an overlooked concept was made comprehensible. The elements of structure gave a conventional floor to thought and interpretation. The setting renewed familiarity and developed a light mood for the readers to embrace and connect with. The element of time brings perspective into the picture. Every dangling string in our lives was tied to a past decision. Surely, our circumstances are a testament to the decisions we’ve made.