The Road Less Travelled is The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost published a poem in 1916 called The Road Not Taken.  At no point in time did he publish a poem under the title, The Road Less Travelled.  I point this out because I used to believe that he did in fact publish a poem with that title, but when I re-examined the actual poem in college I was surprised to find that the poem I thought I knew didn’t exist.  Here is 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.

 

The popular interpretation of this poem is that it is inspirational.  It is said to be a celebration of individuality and courage.  Sure, that can be found in the poem, but in which parts?  I will make those parts bold.

 

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.

 

If you focus on certain parts, you can extract that inspirational meaning.   The poet faced a difficult decision at a time in his life.  He made the choice to follow his own path, which is less travelled because most people choose the easier path.  That choice has made all the difference in his life, and the poet is glad.

That’s all well and good, but if you really look at what the poem is saying, I don’t believe you will come to the same conclusion.

First, consider the title.  It isn’t called The Road Less Travelled, but The Road Not Taken.  The subject of the title is the path that the poet did not take.  I had a professor tell me once that the title of the poem was The Road Less Travelled.  When I assured him that he was mistaken, he went home and did his homework.  Then he apologized.  This isn’t to say that I’m awesome, only to show you how easy it is to ignore the true title of this poem.  It makes a huge difference when you see this.

Second, consider some of these critical lines.

And sorry I could not travel both

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay

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.

 

We learn that the poet judged both paths to be about equal.  When he made the choice he had some difficulty because they both appeared to be good options.  He is sorry he couldn’t travel both.  Also notice that he is telling this with a sigh.  Is this a happy sigh?  It seems more like a sigh that would accompany melancholy.  This is the case if he is thinking about the road he didn’t take.  And notice that he doesn’t say anything positive about taking the road less travelled.  He only says that it made all the difference.  Is it a positive difference, or a negative difference, or a neutral difference?  What do you think?

Third , Robert Frost was one of America’s greatest poets.  Does it make more sense that his poem would be simply inspirational?  Or, does it make more sense that it is layered and not so easily pinned down?  Follow your own path kids, and you will achieve success!

And finally, read these words from Frost himself.  (I found this after I came to my own conclusion) 

“I wasn’t thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.” August 1953

 

 

Why did I go through the trouble to write about this poem?  For one, it’s one of the few English related things that I’m a snob about.  I admit it.  But that’s not the main reason I wrote this.

I want you to see how easy it is to miss the substance of something if you only give it a cursory glance.  This is a good example since people are often using the poem for simple inspiration and misrepresenting the title.

Do we do this with other things?

Things that really matter?

 

 

 

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Posted on October 25, 2010, in Everything Else, Popular Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Wow man, this post is awesome. You’re totally right, and I used to read that poem as inspirational, too.

    I think it makes the poem very relevant: Very often we are faced with two (or more) decisions, none of which are bad, but can only do one, and the doing of the one will close the door on the others. Career choices come to mind.

    As for your last question, yes, we do. 😉

    Keep writing, man.

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