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Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken: Meaning and Analysis

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 12, 2021 2:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Robert Frost is arguably one of the most well-known American poets of all time, so it’s not surprising that his work is taught in high schools and colleges across the nation. Because he’s so famous, chances are you’ve encountered “The Road Not Taken” before

We’re here to help you build a deeper understanding of “The Road Not Taken.” To help you learn what Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” poem is all about, we’ll cover the following in this article: 

  • A brief intro to the poet, Robert Frost
  • Information about the poem’s background
  • “The Road Not Taken” meaning
  • “The Road Not Taken” analysis, including the top two themes in the poem
  • The poetic devices in “The Road Not Taken” that you need to know

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get going!

 


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Robert Frost is widely recognized as one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. (Sneha Raushan/Wikimedia)

 

Robert Frost Biography

Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California. His father was a newspaper editor (a profession Frost later practiced himself, among others), and his mother was a teacher and Scottish immigrant. When he was about ten years old, his family moved to Massachusetts to be near his grandfather, who owned a sawmill. Frost was named both the valedictorian and the “class poet” of his high school graduating class...and two years later published his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” in the New York Independent magazine. 

At this point, Frost knew he wanted to be a poet. But unfortunately, the next segment of Frost’s life would be marked by upheaval. He attended both Dartmouth and Harvard, but dropped out of both before graduating. His poetry wasn’t gaining traction in the United States, either. To complicate matters further, Frost and his wife, Elinor, suffered personal tragedy when two of their six children died in infancy. 

In 1900, feeling frustrated by his job prospects and a lack of traction in his poetry career, Frost moved his family to a farm left to him by his grandfather in Derry, New Hampshire. Frost would live there for nine years, and many of his most famous early poems were written before his morning chores while tending to the farm. But Frost’s poetry was still largely overlooked by American publishers. Consequently, Frost decided to sell the farm in 1911 and moved his family to London. It was there he published his first anthology of poetry, A Boy’s Will, in 1913

Frost’s second anthology, North of Boston, was published in 1914 and found massive success in England. Finally, after years of struggle, Frost became a famous poet essentially overnight. In order to avoid WWI, Frost returned to the U.S. in 1915 and began teaching at Amherst College and the University of Michigan, all the while continuing to write poetry. He received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and became the public face of 20th century American poetry. Late in life, at 86 years old, Robert Frost also became the first inaugural poet at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960. 

Throughout his career, Frost never strayed far from old-fashioned, pastoral poetry, despite the fact that newer American poets moved in a more experimental direction. Frost’s poetry continued to focus on rural New England life up until his death in 1963. 

 

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” Poem

“The Road Not Taken” is a narrative poem, meaning it is a poem that tells a story. It was written in 1915 as a joke for Frost’s friend, Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas were fond of hiking together, and Thomas often had trouble making up his mind which trail they should follow. (Yes, that’s right: one of the most famous American poems was originally written as a goofy private joke between two friends!)

Frost first read it to some college students who, to his surprise, thought it a very serious poem. “The Road Not Taken” was first published in the August 1915 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and then was re-published as the opening poem in his poetry collection Mountain Interval the next year.

The full text of the poem is below.

 

“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.

 

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Frost's most famous poem got its start as part of a letter sent to his best friend on the eve of World War I.

 

The Background Behind “The Road Not Taken” Poem

“The Road Not Taken” has become well known for its perceived encouragement to take the “[road] less traveled by.” In other words, many people interpret this poem as a call to blaze new trails and break away from the status quo. This is partly why lots of people misremember the poem’s title as “The Road Less Travelled.” 

This interpretation of “The Road Not Taken” is debatable (more on that later), but it was enough to inspire Frost’s friend Edward Thomas to make a very grave decision to fight in World War I.

Frost and Thomas were great friends while Frost lived in England, both of them were well-read and very interested in nature. They frequently took long walks together, observing nature in the English countryside. However, Frost’s time in England ended in 1915 when World War I was on the verge of breaking out. He returned to the United States to avoid the war and fully expected Thomas to follow him. 

Thomas did not. Frost’s poem came in the mail as Thomas was deciding whether to leave Europe or to participate in the war effort. While “The Road Not Taken” wasn’t the only thing that made Thomas enlist and fight in World War I, it was a factor in his decision. Thomas, regretting his lack of achievement compared to his good friend Frost and feeling that the poem mocked his indecisiveness, decided to take initiative and fight for his country. Unfortunately, Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.

Thomas was inspired to take “the road not taken” because of Frost’s poem. The same is true for many people who’ve read the poem since it was first published in 1915. The concept of taking a “road less traveled'' seems to advocate for individuality and perseverance, both of which are considered central to American culture. The poem has been republished thousands upon thousands of times and has inspired everything from self-help books to car commercials.

 

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Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” Analysis: Meaning and Themes

To help you understand the significance of Robert Frost’s poetry, we’ll break down the overall meaning and major themes of the poem in our “The Road Not Taken” analysis below. 

But before we do, go back and reread the poem. Once you have that done, come back here...and we can get started! 

 

Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” Meaning

“The Road Not Taken” is a poem that argues for the importance of our choices, both big and small, since they shape our journey through life. For Frost, the most important decisions we make aren’t the ones we spend tons of time thinking about, like who we have relationships with, where we go to college, or what our future career should be. Instead, Frost’s poem posits that the small choices we make each and every day also have big impacts on our lives. Each decision we make sets us upon a path that we may not understand the importance of until much, much later. 

This theme is reflected throughout the poem. For instance, the poem begins with a speaker placing us in a scene, specifically at the point where two roads break away from each other in the middle of a “yellow wood.”

The speaker is sorry they cannot go both directions and still “be one traveler,” which is to say that they cannot live two divergent lives and still be one single person. In other words, the speaker can’t “have their cake and eat it, too.” The speaker has to choose one direction to go down, because like in life, making a decision often means that other doors are subsequently shut for you. 

For example, if you choose to go to college at UCLA, that means you’re also choosing not to go to college elsewhere. You’ll never know what it would be like to go to the University of Michigan or as a freshman straight out of high school because you made a different choice. But this is true for smaller, day-to-day decisions as well. Choosing who you spend time with, how hard you study, and what hobbies your pursue are examples of smaller choices that also shape your future, too. 

The speaker of the poem understands that . They stand at the crossroads of these two paths for a long time, contemplating their choice. First, they stare down one path as far as he or she can, to where it trails off into the undergrowth. The speaker then decides to take the other path, which they state is just as “fair,” meaning just as attractive as the first. The narrator states that the second path “wanted wear,” meaning that it was slightly more overgrown than the first path. 

But more importantly, no matter which path the speaker takes, they know they’re committed to follow it wherever it may lead. We see that in this stanza: 

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.

While the speaker says they “saved the first” path for “another day” to make them feel better about their decision, the next two lines show that the speaker realizes they probably won’t be able to double back and take the first path, no matter where the second one leads. Just like in life, each path leads to another path, and then another. In other words, the decisions we make in the moment add up and influence where we end up in life--and we don’t really get a “redo” on. 

After choosing their path, the speaker says they look forward to a day far in the future when, “with a sigh,” they’ll tell people about taking the road “less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” 

Does this mean that taking the one less traveled has “made all the difference” in a good way?

Saying so “with a sigh” doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing. The poem isn’t at all clear on whether or not taking the less traveled path was a good choice or a bad choice. So while the poem is clear that all of our choices shape the path we take in life, it’s more ambiguous about whether choosing “less traveled” paths is a good thing or not. That’s up to readers to decide! 

 

Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” Theme 1: The Power of Hindsight 

This brings us to our first theme: how hindsight gives our choices power.  

The speaker begins at a point of bifurcation (which is a fancy way of saying “break into two branches”). As readers, we’re meant to take the poem both as a literal story about someone in the woods trying to decide which way to go, as well as a metaphor about how our life choices are like divergent paths in the woods. 

Like we mentioned earlier, the poem is clear that you can’t take two paths and still “be one traveler,” nor can you be certain that you’ll ever get a chance to test out your other options. That’s because every choice you make leads to more choices, all of which lead you further and further from our starting point. 

However, the poem also suggests that while the choices we make are important, how we interpret these choices is what really makes us who we are. We see this in the last lines of the poem, which read: 

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Essentially, the speaker is saying that later in life he will look back in time and see that moment as one of great significance. But we can only know which choices matter the most through the power of retrospection. It’s like the old saying goes: hindsight is 20/20! 

Here’s what frost means: when we’re making choices in life, they might seem inconsequential or like they’re not that big of a deal. But once time passes and we’ve journeyed down our path a little farther, we can look back into the past and see which choices have shaped us the most. And oftentimes, those choices aren’t the ones we think are most important in the moment. The clarity and wisdom of hindsight allows us to realize that doing something like taking the path “less traveled by” has impacted our lives immensely. 

 

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"The Road Not Taken" is also about our perspective...and how hindsight helps us reconsider our past decision.  

 

Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” Theme 2: Perspective and Memory

The other major theme in “The Road Not Taken” is how our individual perspective. 

The speaker of the poem spends most of their time trying to decide which path to take. They describe each path in detail: the first one curves into the undergrowth, while the second was more tempting because it was “grassy” and a little less worn. 

But the truth is that these paths have more in common than not. They’re both in the woods, for one. But the speaker also says the first is “just as fair” as the other, meaning it’s just as pretty or attractive. They also mention that “And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black,” which is a poetic way of saying that neither path had been walked on in a while. And even the one the poet says is less traveled was actually “worn...about the same” as the first path! 

So it’s the speaker’s perspective that makes these paths seem divergent rather than them actually being super different from one another! 

Because our perspectives shape the way we understand the world, it also affects our memories.  Our memories help us understand who we are, and they shape the person we become. But as we tell ourselves our own story, we overwrite our memories. It’s kind of like deleting a sentence and retyping it...only for it to change a little bit each time! 

What is your earliest memory? What is your favorite memory? Now think about this: are you remembering them, or are you remembering remembering them? Is there a difference? Yes, because science shows that every single time we recall a memory we change it. It’s very possible that your favorite early memory isn’t your memory at all--it is more likely a memory of being told something that happened to you. Perhaps you have a photograph of a moment that triggers your memory. The photograph may not change, but you do and your memory of the things that happened in that moment do.

So, if our experiences and our choices make us who we are, but we’re constantly misremembering and changing our memories, how do actual events even matter? 

“The Road Not Taken” says that they do. Our choices we make are impactful, but the way we remember them is what helps shape us as individuals. So “The Road Not Taken” isn’t necessarily an ode to bravely taking the less popular path when others wouldn’t. It’s more like an ode to being resigned to believing our choices made us who we are, even though if we hadn’t made them, hadn’t taken that path, we’d be someone else who made choices that were just as valid.

 

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Poetic devices are the tools we can use to unpack the meaning of a poem. Here are two that are important to understanding "The Road Not Taken."

 

The Top 2 Poetic Devices in “The Road Not Taken”

Poetic devices are literary devices that poets use to enhance and create a poem’s structure, tone, rhythm, and meaning. In Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken,” Frost uses iambic meter and voice to reinforce the poem’s meaning

 

Poetic Device 1: Iambic Meter

First thing’s first: the following is only a short overview of iambic meter. If you want an in-depth discussion of meter, check out our blog about it

So what is meter? The English language has about an equal number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Arranging these stressed syllables into consistent is one of the most common ways of giving a poem a structure...and this arrangement is called “meter.” 

A poem’s meter is made up of units. Each “unit” of stressed and unstressed syllables that repeats in a poem is called a foot. A foot can either be an iamb (one unstressed followed by one stressed syllable), a trochee (one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable), a dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables) or an anapest (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable). 

The iamb is the foot that comes to us most naturally as native English speakers, and the most iambs we can speak easily without having to inhale for another breath is about five. So the most common structure for English language poetry is iambic pentameter, meaning the most common foot is an iamb, and there are five iambs per line. Historically, the vast majority of poetry written in English has been in iambic pentameter, and it was the default format for English poetry for centuries. 

But pentameter isn’t the only iambic meter: two feet make dimeter, three feet make trimeter, four feet make tetrameter, and six feet make hexameter, and so forth.

The Modernist poets started moving away from these traditional repeating patterns of meter just after World War I, using invented patterns called “free verse.” Although Modernist free verse didn’t replace metrical verse overnight or completely, it slowly broke down the central importance of it in ways that are still felt today. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is from the very tail end of the iambic-meter-as-a-necessity era. Frost stubbornly and famously stuck to the traditional metrical forms, comparing free verse to playing tennis “with the net down.”

It is the iambic meter that gives the poem its “old-fashioned” rhythm and comfortable feeling. It’s also the thing that makes the poem sound so natural when you read it out loud. You may not even immediately recognize that the poem is in iambic meter, but it becomes clear when you start breaking down the lines. Take this one, for example:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

Looking at the stressed and unstressed syllables we get:

two ROADS/di-VERGED/in a YELL/ow WOOD

The capitalized syllables are stressed, and the lowercase ones aren’t. Each pair of these is an iamb! 

There are four stressed syllables on this line, as well as every other line in the poem. That means this poem is in iambic tetrameter. The most common foot is an iamb (although notice that the third foot is an anapest), and there are four of them.

So why is this important? First, iambic tetrameter is a metrical pattern favored by the 19th century Romantics, who very frequently wrote poems that involved lonely people having great epiphanies while out in nature by themselves. By mimicking that style, Frost pulls on a long poetic tradition helps readers hone in on some of the major themes of his poem--specifically, that the speaker’s decision in the woods will have long-term consequences for both their character and their life. 

The iambic form also rolls off of the tongue easily because it’s the most common meter in the English language. That also echoes the importance of nature in “The Road Not Taken”: both in terms of the natural imagery in the poem, but also in its discussion of the nature of perspective and memory. In that way, the form of the poem helps to reinforce its themes! 

 

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Poetic Device 2: Voice

The second poetic device that Frost employs is voice. The voice of a poem is the product of all the stylistic and vocabulary choices that add up to create a character. In this case, the poem has one character: the speaker. The speaker is unnamed, and it’s through their perspective that we experience the poem. It’s easy to think of the speaker as being Frost himself, but try to resist that temptation. The voice of a poem is an artificial construct, a character created to give the poem a certain effect. 

So how does Frost create this voice? First, note that the poem is in first person. That means we’re getting the speaker’s perspective in their own words, signaled by their use of first person pronouns like “I.” Additionally, the audience isn’t being addressed directly (like in Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise). Instead, it’s as if we’ve intruded upon the speaker’s thoughts as they ruminate over the potential ramifications of choosing one path over another. 

Writing the poem in first person means that we’re getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth. In some ways, this is a good thing: it helps us understand the speaker’s unique perspective and in their own unique voice. But in other ways, it makes the objective details of the moment less clear. That’s because the speaker’s recounting of the moment in the woods is colored by his own memory. That means we have to rely on the speaker’s interpretation of events...and decide how that impacts our interpretation of the poem! The first person narration also gives the poem much of its reflective nature.

 

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What’s Next?

Analyzing poetry can be tricky, so it’s helpful to read a few expert analyses. We have a bunch on our blog that you can read through, like this one about Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” or this article that explains 10 different sonnets!  

It’s much easier to analyze poetry when you have the right tools to do it! Don’t miss our in-depth guides to poetic devices like assonance, iambic pentameter, and allusion.

If you’re more about writing poetry than analyzing it, we’ve got you covered! Here are five great tips for writing poetry (and a few scholarships for budding poets, too). 

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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