To understand the seminal significance of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” one must first appreciate the perennial ambiguity at the core of the poem. Meandering from nostalgic reverie to ambivalent speculation, the poem is simultaneously a critique and a homage to the The Journey. It is a poem which attempts to convince both the reader and itself that fulfilment in life can only be achieved if one believes they have made the correct choices, and in attempting to do so the poem is itself a journey; one which inspires continued study.
The poem’s title being phrased in the negative, “The Road Not Taken” [my italics], rather than “The Road Taken” or “The Road I Took” immediately establishes an element of lamentation about what has been lost. This focus on what was “not taken” would normally precipitate a negative tone, however, the revelation that the “Two roads [which] diverged in a yellow wood” are “just as fair” immediately throws the scenario into conflict. The repetition of this makes the merit of the traveller's decision relative rather than clearly defined as correct and requires close consideration by the reader to ascertain the nature of the persona’s sentiment. It then becomes a journey for the reader, unique to each individual, as they navigate the ambiguity of Frost’s world to arrive at their own conclusion about the meaning of the poem.
“’The Road Not Taken’ can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that [reaches] not only back to the Gospels [but also] beyond them to the Greeks” (Montiero, 1988). This motif of a pivotal life-choice is arguably timeless and continues to resonate across “histo-cultural” boundaries (Foucault). The poem itself reveals the far-reaching implications of this ponderous decision, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence”, and invites the responder to consider the ambiguity of the “difference” this decision has made. The change of tense in the final stanza suggest this “difference” is speculative and not certain; the traveler remains at the cross-roads at the culmination of the poem and the reader is left to consider whether the persona has indeed made the right decision and to decide for ourselves if the “sigh” is one of contentment or one of wistful resignation.
Jay Parini points to the poems repetition of the “two roads” being “just as fair” as an attempt by the persona to delude themself.
“What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: ‘When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less travelled road. But I shall be lying’. [Parini, 1988]
This mockery of those who take a revisionist approach to their own history is signalled in the “self-inflated tone of the last stanza” in the repetition of “I”, which rhymes not only with itself but with the ambiguous “sigh”. “Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less travelled, is a fraudulent position” [Parini, 1988] propagated to perpetuate the myth that rebellion and individualism leads to happiness and a satisfying life.
Stanza three of the poem describes the persona as having made the decision of which “road” to take but not having yet committed themself to the arduousness of the journey. The exclamatory statement “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” is suspect in its intensity as it may be interpreted as a defensive statement. Contrastingly, the emotive “Oh” in combination with the intimacy of the 1st-person utilized throughout the poem may indeed indicate a contented world-weariness. The ambiguity in this ejaculation is indelible to the poem’s mysterious stance of whether “The Road Not Taken” is a celebration of individualism or a lament on the price of non-conformity.
The ongoing relevance of such an image of “two roads” diverging can be seen in great evidence across the landscape of contemporary American cinema. From “teen-movies” like Road Trip and Euro Trip to existentialist art-house cinema such as Lynch’s Lost Highway, the road persists as a metaphor for the path to freedom; but a path with unforeseen dangers and consequences. Robert Faggen posits that “the problem of making a choice at a crossroads is almost [so] commonplace” that Frost is knowingly acknowledging the cliché’ and purposely utilizing it to elicit “a larger mythology by including evolutionary metaphors and suggesting a passage of eons” [Faggen, 1997]; seen in the final stanzas “age and ages hence”. The seeming endlessness of the road which vanishes “in the undergrowth” presents both a danger and opportunity which continues to intrigue both composers and audiences alike. Making Frost’s poem a seminal contribution to the canon of American Literature, which, like The Gospels and works of Greek mythology, demands constant reinterpretation in order to appreciate the nuanced insight it offers into the human condition.
“The Road Not Taken” can be interpreted as an allegory for The American Dream, due to its exploration of the freedom promised by “The Road” and the opportunity for each person to make of their lives what they wish. The traveller in the poem is a man knowingly in control of his own fortunes, and despite acknowledging the onerous nature of deciding between the “two roads that diverged in a yellow wood”, he ultimately opts for the path that is “grassy and wanted wear”. Frost does, however, acknowledge the flickering uncertainty felt by the self-determined traveller; “Though as for the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same”. This anxiety being, seemingly, resolved in the final stanza in which the stanza states with confidence that his life is clearly demarcated from others by his decision to take the individualized path to happiness. The realization of The American Dream is an aspiration that was as relevant at Frost’s time of composition as it is today. However, in a postmodern epoch of cynicism, irony and hyper-consumerist “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen) it is the ambiguity of the poem which intrigues us; begging us to consider the question – is there truly a difference between being able to successfully fool everyone else that we are living The American Dream and actually living it? Thus, as an allegory for traversing the treacherous American landscape on the road to success, Frost’s poem remains poignant as an exploration of the human condition.
Faggen, R. (1997) Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin, The University of Michigan.
Foucault, M. (1966) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.
Montiero, M. (1988) Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, The University Press of Kentucky.
Parini, J. (1988) “Frost” in Columbia Literary History of the United States [ed. Emroy Elliot], Colombia University Press.
Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class.