"The Road Not Taken" Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Even if you aren't a hardcore poetry lover (and let's face it, there aren't a whole lot of those left), you probably know at least a few lines of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." You know the one — "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." But do you really know it? Probably not.

A Well-Traveled Road

Most of the time, "The Road Not Taken" is read as an ode to individualism and going your own way. Frost seems to be celebrating the trailblazer who prefers a journey few others have taken. It's almost ironic how often the poem is quoted: Reading "The Road Not Taken" during a high school graduation is certainly one of the most well-worn paths a valedictorian can take. In fact, according to scholar David Orr's book named after the poem, the phrase "Road Not Taken + Frost" is searched more frequently than other 20th-century poetry searches such as "Waste Land + Eliot" and "This Is Just to Say + Carlos Williams." It even outclasses searches like "Like a Rolling Stone + Dylan," taking place about 2.5 times more often. (To say nothing of searches for the 20th-century poet Sir Mix-a-Lot.) When you start to think of all the people who are mistakenly searching "Road Less Traveled" instead of the poem's proper name, it becomes clear that the poem has made a sizeable impact on our collective consciousness.

But we've been getting it wrong this whole time. Robert Frost's poem doesn't actually say anything about whether it's better to go with the crowd or head off on your own. Although he says that his choice of path "made all the difference," he doesn't say if that difference was good or bad. He even seems to be saying it ironically, since the speaker doesn't know how different his life would have been on the other path. In fact, if you look closely, he's not even convinced that the one path is really less traveled than the other. In the stanzas preceding the oft-quoted final one, Frost says about the paths that previous pedestrians "Had worn them really about the same / And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

On closer examination, it becomes clear that the speaker in Frost's poem is not making his decision out of any sense of superiority or individuality. Rather, the poem is more about indecision in the face of two functionally identical options. Frost almost seems a hair's breadth from mocking the speaker, who is caught in a fantasy of his distant future in the final stanza. He imagines that years have passed since he made his fateful decision in that yellow wood, and is convinced that one path might bring great rewards while the other will only bring ruin.

A Friendly Tease, A Tragic End

One detail about the poem that we were astonished to learn is that it's about a real person — and despite the fact that both Robert Frost and this poem specifically are seen as the quintessential American poem, it's more a teasing message to Frost's Welsh friend Edward Thomas. Thomas was the kind of guy who would hem and haw for hours between a tuna salad sandwich or a Caesar salad for fear of making the wrong choice. But just like pretty much everyone else, Thomas ended up misinterpreting the poem's meaning. He thought his friend was actually chiding him for his inaction during World War I, and he ended up enlisting as a result. Two months later, he died in combat.

Wow, this poem is a lot less inspiring than we thought. No wonder Frost was known to warn readers and audiences: "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem — very tricky."

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There's something to be said for examining a piece you think you know through a whole new lens. Take a deep dive in Robert Frost's best-known piece in David Orr's "The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 18, 2018

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