Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken – Analysis & Meaning
May 2, 2023
“The Road Not Taken” is a poem of behemoth presence from high school English classrooms to motivational posters to the annals of New England poetry. Before we dive into our The Road Not Taken analysis, meaning, figurative language, and literary devices, we want to point out that the origin story of Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” is that it began as a joke. Frost was poking fun at his friend who was often plagued with indecision on hikes they took together.
As you can imagine due to the pervasive power of the poem, the meaning of “The Road Not Taken” is more complex than a mere joke. In fact, as David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, argues, “The Road Not Taken” is the poem that “Everyone Loves and Everyone Gets Wrong.” A keen eye is required to glean the meanings of “The Road Not Taken” past common misconceptions and its joking origin.
The Road Not Taken – Analysis
In the poem, a traveler confronts a fork in the road. In the first stanza, the traveler expresses pre-emptive regret at his inability to “travel both.” The speaker stops to determine which road to take, looking “down as far as I could” one way. The speaker intimates this first road is unfrequented, describing it as having “undergrowth.” The first stanza ends with this observation. Then, the next stanza commences with the speaker looking down the other road which is “just as fair, / and having perhaps the better claim.”
The second path is initially seen as equally beautiful (“just as fair”). Yet by the second line, the speaker doubts just how equal the second road is. They conjecture, “perhaps” (though not assuredly!) this second road is actually better “because it was grassy and wanted wear.” The speaker flip-flops again. This time retreating from the idea that the second is better because “the passing there / had worn them really about the same.”
Similarly, the arc of the third stanza follows the previous one. The speaker notes that the two “equally lay / in leaves no step had trodden black”. This line emphasizes that the roads are equivalently untraveled. By the third line of the stanza, though, the second road takes the lead as the speaker declares “Oh, I kept the first for another day!”. This middle line again turns to favor the second road even though they had just been deemed equivalent.
The Road Not Taken Analysis (Continued)
Yet the decision to take the second road is only announced in the negative by stating that the speaker saves the first road for later, rather than stating that they chose the second. This line is grammatically important. It is both the second full sentence of the poem and just one line. This is a stark contrast from the fact that the first sentence takes up an entire two and a half stanzas. It is also the only sentence with an exclamation mark. Through an analysis of the poem’s grammar, one could surmise that this is the most emphatic sentence, a culmination, or an epiphany. Yet this emphatic, epiphanic moment is cast into an uncertain future. The speaker, roiled in indecision, seems to justify any choice with the hope to return and walk both roads.
Ultimately, this moment of hope swiftly changes into regret in the final stanza, (“I shall be telling this with a sigh). The speaker says that when asked in the future of the decision made that day, they will reply that they “took the one less traveled by, / and that has made all the difference.” It is this penultimate line that is often confused as the poem’s actual title. Through analyzing “The Road Not Taken”’s meaning, we realize that they are equally untraveled! The fact that the speaker took “the one less traveled by” is to catch the speaker in a kind of lie. This is emphasized both by the “sigh” and the poem’s lamenting title “The Road Not Taken.”
The Road Not Taken Analysis (Continued)
Such a misinterpretation feeds into Frost’s commentary on human nature; the two options may be equal but the chooser crafts a reason for their choice. Frost emphasizes the roads’ similarities, returning to the fact that the roads are equally untraveled. One was “just as fair” as the other, they were “really about the same,” and they both “equally lay.” The speaker contradicts that emphasis by calling the road taken the “one less traveled by.” While the poem agonizes over both the roads and details the second with more attention, proclaiming that road has “made all the difference,” the poem’s title indicates it is truly about the first road. Amidst indecision and the performance of a surefire choice at the end, the spectral ghost of regret haunts each line.
Overall, Frost takes on the themes of indecision, choice and chance, regret and dreaming. The poem also examines the human confronting nature, the desire to conquer through knowledge and exploration as well as nature’s magnitude that might overwhelm the individual. Questions of power, agency, and individuality emerge alongside an emphasis on human meaning-making. For a poem that started out as a prank on a colleague, Frost sure packs existential questions into those short four stanzas!
The Road Not Taken Form and Tone
Frost’s poem is written in four stanzas that contain five lines each, comprised of an iambic tetrameter base. Iambic tetrameter is the fancy poetic term of a line comprised of four (tetra) iambs. An iamb consists typically of two syllables that have a short-long emphasis pattern where the second syllable is emphasized and longer. But Frost doesn’t perfectly follow this pattern. In nearly every line, there are one to two iambs that have an extra syllable. (For more information on meter and scansion, check out this post!)
What do the form and tone of a poem have to do with its meaning and analysis? With meter, the poem has a rhythmic beat that lends itself to speech. It follows typical patterns of speech while having an internally cohesive rhyme scheme of ABAAB. It is almost as if Frost, too, is faced with a choice. Should he use a strict meter and rhyme or not use a strict meter and rhyme? And while he chooses the former ‘road’ of a metered, rhyming poem, he sneaks in the other option too. Choice and indecision live in both the poem’s form and content.
This balance of immaculate meter and form alongside colloquial syntax also indicate both his high mastery of poetic form and the poem’s accessibility. Emotionally speaking, the poem’s tone evokes indecision, uncertainty, nervousness, and regret. Rational assessment comingles with emotionality across each stanza. Akin to the way the poem’s meaning seems self-evident yet contains complexities that have led to misinterpretation, the simple yet detailed language reveals that things are more complex than they might initially appear.
Literary Devices in “The Road Not Taken”
Frost’s use of repetition and doubling doesn’t just exist via the rhyme scheme but through the use of anaphora. Line 2-4 all begin with “and” which can demonstrate the speaker taking in all the options. It can also signal the way in which the scene of nature and voyaging through it can quickly become an overwhelming task.
Additionally, the poem also makes use of enjambment—where the sentence stretches across two lines to break it up. One example is “Though as for that, the passing there /had worn them really just about the same”. Here, Frost pauses in the middle to generate suspense in the comparison of the two roads before revealing (after the line break!) that they are “the same.” The enjambment’s pause mimics looking back and forth between the two roads in the same forest.
The Road Not Taken Literary Devices (Continued)
Another literary device in “The Road Not Taken” is personification, particularly in the third line in the second stanza. Here, Frost writes, ““Because it was grassy and wanted wear.” Roads themselves cannot have wants. Yet Frost includes this personification to demonstrate the way that an almost mystical quality can emerge amidst a tough choice. The speaker anthropomorphizes the road, giving it wants and desires to justify the choice.
Furthermore, “The Road Not Taken” also deploys the literary device of irony. While the title is “The Road Not Taken” the speaker fixates on justifying the choice of the road that was indeed taken. This irony emphasizes regret and retrospection. The irony also helps us see the subjectivity or even delusional facets of decision-making. The speaker travels down the second road (where both roads were previously equally untraveled). Therefore the speaker actually takes the road MORE travelled. Perhaps this irony shows us the further meaning that while the speaker walks down the second road, they become fixated on the first road which has become both the road not taken AND the road less traveled by.
Figurative Language in “The Road Not Taken”
There is quite a bit of figurative language in “The Road Not Taken.” Indeed, while this poem in some ways describes Frost’s real-life experience of debating which path to take on his fateful hikes with Thomas, he has transformed that experience into a poem that is lush with metaphor, symbolism, and imagery.
The poem is lush with description and symbolism. From the first line, we encounter the converging symbolisms of the road and “a yellow wood.” The yellow wood and grassiness enable the reader to immediately visualize the natural scene. The use of just the word ‘yellow’ reveals the poem is set in Fall—a season of changing, dying leaves. Change is certainly afoot!
Additionally, “The Road Not Taken” uses metaphor and extended metaphor. The extended metaphor of the choice of roads becomes a metaphor for indecision, decision making, man/nature, domination, and much more. The metaphor of walking forward and taking steps symbolizes life decisions, moving forward down a lifepath or through time. This is further emphasized by the line: “I doubted if I should ever come back.” While we can go back to a hiking spot and travel down another road, we can’t go back to make the same choice under the same conditions.
“The Road Not Taken” Figurative Language (Continued)
Across the content, form, literary devices, and use of figurative language in “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost demonstrates the conundrums of choice, meaning, and decision-making through how we map narratives onto the outside world through imaginative forces that do not intrinsically exist. The roads are objectively equal, yet the speaker feels the road ultimately chosen has a special glint. Frost points us to how our decisions at times are arbitrary and lack clear rationale. At times, we justify our decisions in retrospect. Yet the poem doesn’t state whether or not the road chosen was the right or wrong choice. Rather, “The Road Not Taken” meditates on the nature of choice itself.
The Road Not Taken Analysis & Meaning- Final Thoughts
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