The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost was written almost a hundred years ago, and is still one of the most popular and loved pieces of poetry in English-speaking world end beyond. The poem is very brief – only twenty short lines, and as many other pieces of poetry of similar size is deep in meaning and may be interpreted in various ways. It would be reasonable to perform a textual analysis, as proper understanding of lexics and their combination may be a key to a better understanding of the meaning of the poem, both written and unwritten.
The poem starts with a descriptive part. The most obvious meaning of the first stanza is an introduction to the situation in which the protagonist found himself. It is important to remember that the character of a piece of fiction should not be identified to the author as a person, otherwise it would be too schematic. One of the functions of poetry is self expression, but it is rarely simple and straight-forward.
The second stanza is dedicated to the process of making decision itself and provides clear criteria in its favor. The character points out that “it was grassy and wanted wear” as a definite distinction of the path he chose. On the other hand, this judgment was not without uncertainty – the road of his choice was “perhaps the better claim”. This, in my understanding, is a slightly grotesque situation. The person makes a free and impartial choice (as nothing was said about his acting under pressure of circumstances) based on his own subjective feeling and due to the most shallow and obvious criteria – the grass by the road. Still even with this distinction, the road looks about the same as the other one. So what was the main criterion of the protagonist for preferring this way to the other? Some would say that he made the most obvious choice due to the fact that one option had certain formal features which looked more attractive to him. In my understanding, this scene of decision making has a deeper meaning. It depicts the way that an individual plans and acts according to a certain train of thought which may be triggered by quite simple and basic elements. Many of those who are lured to a certain path try to find a subjective explanation in favor of their choice and may even make things up in order to justify their choice. The character, however, remains just. It is mentioned about the roads that “both that morning equally lay”.
The third stanza brings us to the justification of the decision made. This is probably the most dramatic part of the entire poem. The character is not even trying to deceive himself about the correctness of his decision. He mentions that he “kept the first [road] for another day”, therefore making a certain tribute to his subconscious desire to check the validity and perspective of both of the options he had in store. However the emotions of the protagonist are being successfully overruled by the reason and common sense, and a moment later he realizes that despite his desperate attempts to find internal peace and balance, it was almost impossible to return to the point of departure. This is similar to the Ancient saying that one cannot enter the same river twice. The flow of events would undoubtedly turn it into another river in comparison to the one he entered before. This concept is also reflected in the poem, as the protagonist mentions that he knows “how way leads on to way”. Due to this fact it is understandable why the character feels the regret due to the impossibility of getting back and trying the other road once the choice has been done.
The fourth stanza of the poem is, in a manner of speaking, the afterword to the previous three. While reminding himself of the choice made and all the consequences that followed it, the hero finally makes a defining statement concerning the criterion of his choice – he “took the one less traveled by”. Is it an allegory of life choices which require a certain pioneering approach, reaching the previously unknown and redefining the frontier of human knowledge, physical capabilities or emotional life? Or is it about distinguishing himself from the crowd, having his own way through all the employments and challenges of life, obtaining his own system of values? There is no unified answer to these question. One of the obvious advantages of good poetry is the abundance of meanings and lack of purely factual descriptions. This philosophical component is indeed very strong in the poem and leaves a great room for further interpretation. The protagonist is not a fatalist, as he clearly believes in the freedom of choice, whatever reasons, conscious or subconscious, it is based on. Yet he believes that by their own actions and choices people create the “butterfly effect” with infinite consequences. This “has made all the difference”, this is the reason that it is not possible to get back and try another sequence of events. There is a universe of details and factors, and each combination can only happen once.
This poem had a great influence on human minds throughout the consequent decades. I would say that together with “If” by Rudyard Kipling and “Self-Pity” by David Herbert Lawrence the poem forms a compendium of human spirit. At first sight, these three pieces of poetry are entirely different. Kipling, for instance, composed an entire set of guidelines for a successful, strong and enthusiastic individual. Lawrence shows an example of persistence and will to live. Frost, on the opposite, provides a description of decision making process and subsequent reminiscence. Although it does not contain direct apologetic slogans and maxims, “The Road Not Taken” is probably the strongest and the most convincing evidence of the strength of the human spirit and its triumph over the circumstances. It is not difficult to strive for success being fuelled by strong positive motivation. It is not so hard to be persistent and stubborn to the end and lack self-pity, either. These processes are pretty mechanical and artificial by nature. It is much more challenging, however, to realize the consequences of one’s actions, the irreparable nature of decisions and the burden of respective responsibility. It is incredibly difficult to accept the fact that some things once done may not be undone, and that every step throughout life is a trade-off between what actually is and what might be. The realization of this concept, its acceptance and ability to carry on are distinctive features of a true philosopher, the person who knows and understands life. The fact that Frost managed to express this huge and unbelievable complex idea in a short and seemingly simple poem is the best proof of his geniality. Simple and understandable language, several basic descriptive techniques used by the authors in “The Road Not Taken” made it easy to read but very difficult to understand. This is a sign of a true artist.
Booth, Alison, and Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature (2010).