Robert Frost’s poetry is ideal for learners of English because of the easy vocabulary. Yet despite that his poems are deeper than meets the eye.
Just the other day I came across a simple, but intriguing introduction to this American poet’s work. Here is the link.
And here is a link to the poet reading the poem that we’ll talk about afterwards: “The Road Not Taken.”
Let’s read the poem.
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.
Hope you liked that.
Now let’s discuss it a little bit.
Why the Two Roads?
The first thing that made me wonder when I read the poem is: Is there any difference between the two roads, and if there is: what is it?
In the first stanzas* there seems to be no difference. Line 6 says that the speaker took the second road, which was “just as fair“ as the first road, or maybe it was just a teeny bit better, because it was “grassy” and it wasn’t worn (it “wanted wear”) – see line 8. But then again in lines 9 to 12, the speaker repeats that the two roads are more or less the same. Not many people have passed them, and they are both filled with leaves. Apparently it’s autumn and the leaves have fallen on the ground, because as it says in the very first line of the poem, we’re in a yellow wood.
*A stanza is a part of a poem that is separated by white lines. In the poem that we’re discussing, there are four stanzas and each measures five lines.
At the end when the speaker has studied and compared the two roads carefully, he chooses the second road. As far as I can see, he does this for no particular reason.
Then in the last stanza, we’re in the future: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence:”. At this point the speaker looks back and he now understands that the road he chose back then was the one that was less-traveled. This has changed his life (“And that has made all the difference.”). We’ll never find out, however, what exactly is so different now. Does the speaker mean that his life has been different from other people’s lives? Or does he mean that the road was different compared to how his own life could have been? He doesn’t tell us. The poem remains very mysterious until the very end.
Good Life or Not?
We don’t even know whether the speaker is sad or happy about the choice he made long ago. It depends how much meaning you want to read in the “sigh” in line 16. Some critics of this poem say that the speaker regrets having made a choice in his life years ago, because he was never able to experience the things he could have had if he had made the other choice. But some other critics say that it was a satisfied sigh. That is what Frost himself implied (= suggested) when he commented that the sigh “was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life.” So in his words, the sigh was a kind of joke, and the poet was not sorry about the choices he made in his life.
Regrets: Making Sense of the Past
I myself think that the speaker is sighing because he thinks it’s too bad that you can’t do everything you want in life. It’s human nature to feel regret about experiences that you weren’t able to do, because you were busy with other things. That’s life you could say! In addition, to my mind the poem expresses gently and beautifully that people are fond of ascribing (= giving) meaning to events in their lives that are meaningless or accidental. So what if the speaker chose the second road instead of the first road. Does it really mean he will never (be able to) return to the same spot again?
So what do you think of this poem? Do you have your own ideas about it?
Please note the lovely rhyme scheme of this poem: