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The Road Not Taken

Considered one of America’s greatest poets of the twentieth century, Robert Frost is often associated with simple poetry about the beauty of nature. However, careful analysis of his work proves that his poetry is anything but simple, and is often ripe with symbolism and metaphors about the nature of existence, which oftentimes deals with anxiety, doubt, darkness, and uncertainty.

From the doubt that the speaker feels in “The Road Not Taken,” to his other great many works, the collected poetry of Robert Frost deals heavily with concepts of life and death by using natural symbolism and metaphoric comparisons to create some on the most well-known and beloved American poetry, while all the while transcending life’s negativity to present poignancy and hope. “The Road Not Taken” is about much more than a simple path leading through the woods. It speaks of the choices that every human must make throughout life, whether to go or stay, love or hate, learn or choose ignorance.

Every one of these decisions affects not only the person that makes them, but also ever aspect of existence in society. Robert Frost poses the heavy existential questions of choice by creating the image of two roads diverging in the woods. While the persona of the poem is faced with choices, and realizing the immense impact of his small decision, wishes he could choose both: “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” (ln. 1-5).

As the speaker portrays it, the situation is simply choosing a road to travel, without knowing what lies around the bends of each. The situation requires considerable thought, and the speaker stands looking and thinking about the decision, knowing that only one path can be chosen. This first stanza goes a long way in establishing the tone of doubt and quiet desperation over having multiple choices but limited abilities to take full advantage of them. It also establishes the structure and rhyme scheme that will follow, which begins ABAAB and progresses to CDCCD and so forth throughout each succeeding stanza.

The second stanza reveals the speaker’s choice in roads: “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” (ln. 6-10). By emphasizing that the roads were not equal and the speaker took “the other,” it seems to suggest that the road not taken was the road ideally taken. The speaker explains what makes the road the other, as it was covered and grass and seemed to be the newer, less tread upon path, at least beyond the point where the two roads diverged.

It seems that the speaker has reached a point in the journey that many people have reached, and seems fairly content in the decision to take the path overgrown with grass and that has known the feet of fewer people. The third stanza continues to relay the impact of the choice made by the speaker, and celebrates the decision with joy: “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” (ln. 11-15).

The path of the speaker is one devoid of the footsteps of others, and the understanding that the other road is always there suggests a sort of safe choice available if so desired. The speaker has knowledge of how to get back to the point where the two roads diverged, knowing full well that the well-traveled road is always available. However, the speaker makes no indication of returning, and if anything expresses doubt at ever desiring a return to the point where the decision was made. Unlike the doubt expressed in the first stanza, the third stanza expresses a joy over having made the right decision.

It also helps the reader understand the deeper symbolic meaning of the poem and what Frost may have been trying to express with his simple metaphor. The middle two stanzas of the poem show that the reader chose to take the path less traveled, showing the choice of individuality over conformity and normalcy. The stanzas make the poem much more than just about choosing a path to walk on, but examine the impact that every decision has on life. The speaker of the poem realizes that the choice made will have a great effect on the future and that there is no way to know where it will lead.

Yet, this uncertainty is nothing to feel fear or anxiety about, rather it is something to be celebrated as one of the greatest freedoms in life. The freedom to choose is something intrinsically tied into the fabric of American society, from the freedom to choose a religion or not, or the freedom to choose what to say and do. Also uniquely American in spirit is fierce individualism like that seen in the pioneers that built the country and the transcendental nature poets from which Frost seems to take much of his inspiration.

By making the choice to choose the road less traveled, the speaker is not only expressing freedom, but individuality with joy and confidence. While the future cannot be seen and there can be no way to know what waits down the any path, the possibility exists to still take control of destiny by choosing a path that not many others have experienced. The speaker asserts independence and dreams of the things that wait down the path, and only in the final stanza does the despair and the regret of not choosing the other path reemerge.

In the final stanza, the speaker directly addresses the reader, explaining that despite choosing a path of interest and uniqueness, there is still some despair over not having been able to choose both paths: “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” (ln. 16-20). The stanza seems to suggest that the path chosen by the speaker was done so long ago and is merely being recalled in a recollection.

The fact that the speaker sighs when talking about the choice made long ago seems to be less from regret of choosing the road less traveled, but more from not being able to choose both roads. There are hints of loneliness in the final stanza, coupled with regret, but the overall tone of the poem is satisfaction of choosing the right path. In the end, by choosing the road less traveled, the speaker understands and appreciates that it has shaped the life lived after that moment, and while it made all the difference, it remains up to the reader to glean from the rest of the poem whether this difference was good or bad.

“The Road Not Taken” is much more than a simple poem about describing the choice of someone choosing which path to walk on in the woods. The words of Frost’s speaker should be taken very seriously about the choices that one makes in life. This situation of having to decide a path shows the importance of decision, because of its simplicity and symbolism. All people are confronted with this simple choice at virtually every point in their lives about which choice to make, or what path to choose.

They can never really know the consequences of their decision, but they can only take in as much knowledge as possible and base their choice off that, like the speaker when he “looked down as far as I could. ” Each road a person chooses to travel shapes what they will become, and whether it helps them towards their dreams or takes them further away is something they really cannot tell until choosing. Frost’s poem is a serious statement about choice, individuality, and the inevitable doubts and regrets that one faces, no matter what decision is eventually made.

Robert Frost revisits familiar imagery again and again, as well as themes as old as time itself. Life and death, seasonal changes, the passage of time makes seemingly simple descriptions of nature deceptively complex and filled with existential questioning. The careful reader will discover the words within the words of his poetry, while the passionate reader will appreciate the beauty and meaning of Robert Frost.

Works Cited:

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken. ” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 10th ed. New York: Longman, 2007.

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