yellow woods

The Road Not Taken

Introduction

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a beautiful allegory depicting the moment when the speaker must choose between “two roads” but is unable to determine which direction has the “better claim”. The important decisions we make in life will have unalterable consequences that are incredibly difficult to predict. However, Frost’s poem reminds the reader that we are just “one traveler” and our lives will inevitably be full of missed opportunities.

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.

Choices

Travelling through the “yellow wood”, the speaker is forced to choose between “two roads” which continue in different directions. Unfortunately, he can only see “down” the first road until it “bent in the undergrowth”, making it impossible to anticipate where it would end. This is an obvious symbol for our uncertain future.

Turning his attention to the “other” road, he initially believes it is “just as fair” and might even have the “better claim” because it was “grassy and wanted wear”. He decides to take this “less traveled” road and navigate his own way through the woods.

Our lives are shaped and defined by the choices we make every day, so we deliberate over competing arguments, worry about picking the wrong option and try to anticipate the impact of our decisions. Although the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” seems to be confronted by a trivial dilemma, Frost uses the situation to explore how our identity can be determined by the more important choices in life.

Regret

In the second line, the speaker mentions he is “sorry” he could not “travel both” roads and this sense of disappointment is reinforced several times in the poem.

The first twelve lines of “The Road Not Taken” consists of just one sentence focusing on the speaker’s careful consideration of his two options, looking at “one” road for a “long” time and then impulsively taking the “other” because it seems “grassy” and “less traveled”. However, when he walks along this route, he begins to realise the “leaves” had not been “trodden black” by his “passing there” and it was “worn… really about the same”. In other words, the roads were “equally lay” and had “the same” qualities. Perhaps the speaker is experiencing a moment of regret over his impetuous decision.

After the long and ponderous sentence, the short and melodramatic exclamative “Oh, I kept the first for another day” sounds a little ridiculous. That optimism is immediately deflated when he “doubted” he would “ever come back” to the junction and have the option to take the other road.

Another example of this regret is the sorrowful “sigh” in the last stanza which suggests he may never forget “The Road Not Taken”. Of course, the word “sigh” could refer to a sense of relief. Perhaps the speaker knows not to give into regrets.

Setting

The poem is set in a “yellow wood”. A woodland is an unmapped wilderness writers can use to symbolise a range of ideas. For example, its dark meandering lines is an effective signifier for our subconscious minds. It could also represent an exciting or even sinister mystery because it is a place waiting to be explored. Therefore, Frost locates the story in the “wood” because it conveys the confusion and isolation we often feel in our lives.

If the wood is “yellow”, then the leaves are beginning to turn from their vibrant green of summer to their autumnal colours. Setting the poem at this pivotal point in the seasons could be a metaphor for the age of the speaker. They are leaving the vitality of youth behind and are entering middle age. This also adds a sense of urgency and importance to the choice the speaker must make in the poem before the cold darkness of winter sweeps through the woods.

The Road Not Taken

Since the poem centers on the speaker’s choice between “two roads” which have “diverged”, the title “The Road Not Taken” could be focusing the reader’s attention towards the missed opportunity presented by the direction the speaker was unable to follow. This interpretation is supported by his terrible regret that he cannot “travel both” because he is “one traveller” who is unable to keep “the first for another day”.

Alternatively, an optimistic interpretation would view the title as a celebration of our individuality and the freedom to make our own “way” in life. This reading is reinforced by the repetition of “I” in the fourth verse because the tone seems to become defiant in the line “I took the one less traveled by”. If you listen to Frost reading the poem, which is available in the video below, he stresses the adjective “all” in the last line. This emphasis suggests the speaker is completely confident about their decision. In this way, the poem encourages the reader to make their own “difference” in the world.

In complete contrast to this declaration of self-determination, the poem could also be a bleak commentary on the illusion of choice in our lives and the assertive repetition of “I” is nothing more than a fallacy. In the same way the roads are “equally lay”, no choice has the “better claim”.

It is important to note that the last stanza focuses on how the speaker will reshape this moment of indecision “ages and ages hence” into something that made an important “difference” to his life. Frost could be making fun of our desire to find meaning and significance in the choices we make every day, or how we construct our past into a narrative that suits our present.

Perhaps the interpretation of “The Road Not Taken” reveals more about the reader than it does the speaker.

Context

The fourth verse begins with “I shall be telling this with a sigh”. The speaker’s sorrowful or weary voice suggests he will be disappointed with his choice of “road”. However, this tone of regret seems to contradict the pragmatism of Robert Frost’s other poems, such as “Mowing” and “Gathering Leaves”, which both suggest we should simply accept life and its responsibilities.

In his letters, Frost warned that we need “to be careful” of “The Road Not Taken” because “it’s a trick poem”. The story behind the poem could reveal the deception and lead to an alternative reading.

While living in England, the Frost wandered through the Gloucestershire countryside with the acclaimed Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, in search of a “rare plant or special vista”. On many occasions, “Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a ‘better’ direction”. Frost described his friend as “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other”.

Assuming the voice of Edward Thomas, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” to poke fun at those “quaintly romantic” regrets. In the words of Frost’s biographer, Lawrance Thompson, the poet “repeatedly liked to ‘carry himself’ dramatically, in a poem or letter, by assuming a posture not his own, simply for purposes of mockery – sometimes gentle and at other times malicious”.

This certainly explains the speaker’s unusual perspective and suggests “I shall be telling this with a sigh” is was meant to be ironic. In a letter dated June 26, 1915, Frost questioned why Thomas “failed to see that the sigh was a mock sigh”. Perhaps he “missed the gentle jest because the irony was handled too slyly, too subtly”.

Form and Structure

In the opening stanza, Frost emphasises “The Road Not Taken” is a first-person narrative by deliberately repeating “I” three times. This single perspective is reinforced at the end of the poem with the repetition of the first-person pronoun in the lines “and I – I took the one less traveled by”. The poet clearly wants to explore the individual’s decision-making process and the uncertainty he feels choosing a road through the woods.

Frost uses a range of methods to deliver the natural rhythm of the speaker’s voice throughout the poem. For example, the four quintains have a repeating rhyme scheme of abaab. The rhymes, such as “wood”, “stood” and could”, are simple and obvious, and the echoing of “growth” and “undergrowth” brings a satisfying conclusion to the stanza and his thoughts about the first road.

Secondly, the poem is written in tetrameter with a mixture of iambic and anapaestic feet. The opening lines are a good example:

Two roads | di verged | in a yell | ow wood,
And sor | ry I could | not trav | el both

This meter is sustained throughout the poem and, along with the use of mostly monosyllabic words, keeps the tone informal.

Finally, the enjambment throughout the poem, the use of the binder “and” at the start of six lines, and the interjection “oh” all add to the conversational style.

Frost combines these choices to create an authentic and convincing voice which challenges the reader to consider their own choices in life.

Listen to the Poem

The following YouTube video is a recording of Robert Frost reciting “The Road Not Taken”, but you need to click on the image below for the video to begin loading.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Explore the significance of the title “The Road Not Taken”.
  2. What is the speaker in the poem doing?
  3. What is the definition of the verb “diverged”? How does the path relate to theme of choice? Describe the conflict the speaker feels.
  4. Is there any significance of the adjective “yellow” used to describe the wood? Discuss in detail.
  5. Why is the image of the path disappearing beneath the undergrowth important? Again, relate it back to the theme of choice.
  6. How does the speaker feel in the first stanza?
  7. What does the phrase “just as fair” and the word “perhaps” suggest about the roads? Are they different?
  8. What exactly is the “difference” between the two roads?
  9. Why would a road be “grassy”?
  10. Explain in your own words the meaning of the phrase, “way leads on to way”. How does it relate to the choices and decisions we make in life?
  11. Why does the speaker doubt he will ever go back?
  12. What tense is the verb phrase “shall be telling”? What does this suggest about the speaker’s journey? Is it completed yet?
  13. What does the speaker mean by “Somewhere ages and ages hence”?
  14. What is the effect of the repetition of “I” in lines eighteen and nineteen and the pause in between demanded by the dash?
  15. Which road is “less travelled”?
  16. What is the structure of the poem?

Related Pages

The “The Road Not Taken” features in plenty of courses, such CCEA’s GCSE Identity Anthology. The poem is also on the Frost and Heaney A-Level Anthology.

Learn More

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