Literary Devotional: “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 trodded 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.

There exists probably no American poems so frequently quoted yet so widely misinterpreted as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1916).  Almost without fail, readers miss the meaning of the poem by miles, seeing it as a rosy testament to the speaker’s faith in free will and an inspiring call to defy convention and take the road “less traveled by.”  But close reading reveals that the poem actually is laden with the ironic resignation for which Frost was renowned.

The point most overlooked in the poem is the utter arbitrariness of the speaker’s decision about which road to take.  In describing his choice between the two paths, he emphasizes repeatedly that they are essentially identical.  One path looks “as just as fair” as the other, and despite the speaker’s desire to differentiate them, he acknowledges that “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.”  On a whim, he chooses one over the other.

In the last stanza, Frost injects his trademark wry humor.  The speaker admits that “ages and ages hence,” as a reminiscing old man, he will probably retell this story “with a sigh” and claim that he courageously chose the unorthodox route, the one “less traveled by.”  But such a claim would be false.  The speaker just finished telling us that his choice was totally arbitrary, as there was no “less traveled” path to begin with: they both “equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”  Frost recognizes the human tendency to self-aggrandize, to sugarcoat the uncertainty of life, to take comfort in viewing life as a series of conscious, knowable choices betwee good and bad alternatives.  But his ultimate point is that in reality, we have no way of knowing which path in life is best, and our decisions are just as often random, uneducated guesses.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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