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The Road Not Taken: Poetry’s Greatest Prank

This post is inspired by a Facebook flame war – one in which I did not participate, so the object of this discussion won’t know I’m talking about him. The subject of the war is unimportant. What matters is that it concluded when a particularly sanctimonious dude tried to salvage his decimated argument by quoting Robert Frost. In an attempt to justify reliance on his own facts, he insisted that his unconventional position was a result of his being brave enough to carve out a unique path.

“Two roads diverged in a wood,” he quoted, “and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

So there.

I can understand the appeal, certainly. It’s short, pithy, and eminently meme-able.

He is not the first to employ Frost to virtue signal his bold, rugged individualism, nor will he be the last. It’s always ironic to see rugged individualists rigidly conforming to the same poetic justification for their uniqueness, but that’s not the point. The point is that just about everyone who reads this poem gets it hopelessly, miserably wrong, and those lines are quoted to mean precisely the opposite of what Frost intended them to mean.

People often refer to this poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” but that is not the poem’s title, because there isn’t a road less traveled in the verse. It’s actually called “The Road Not Taken,” and, when the narrator arrives at the place where two roads diverge, he observes that both roads were essentially indistinguishable.

The first two stanzas:

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,

So which one is the road less traveled? One was “just as fair” as the other. He says that “perhaps” one had the better claim because it was grassier, but, really, both were “really about the same” in terms of how much they had been worn down by travelers. In the first line of the next stanza, he says that “both that morning equally lay,” again emphasizing that there was nothing significant to differentiate one from the other.

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.

The focus here is not on which road is better, but rather on the fact that the narrator will never know, because it’s unlikely they will ever come back to travel the other path.

Then there’s the final stanza that has the money quote. Most people only quote the final three lines to illustrate their indomitable spirit. But it’s the first two lines that frame the verse in its proper setting.

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.

I think it’s the sigh that’s most telling here. Why would he sigh if choosing “the road less traveled” made him a hero? The narrator is not announcing his triumph; he’s rather lamenting the self-delusion he knows he’s going to be peddling in “ages and ages hence.”

In the time and place where he has to make a decision, he doesn’t know if the road he picks is better or worse. He doesn’t even know which one is truly less traveled – both roads “equally lay” and had been “worn… about the same.” But when called upon to justify his choice, he knows he will reframe the memory to make one of the equal roads a road “less traveled by” and insist that his choice “made all the difference,” even though he actually has no idea whether or not that’s true.

This isn’t a paean to individuality; it’s a verse of sardonic mockery aimed at those who misread it. Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to pull this out as your social media signature.

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  1. And there, I always thought the stanza was just about following your dreams & doing what you love, rather than relying on the obvious– but less interesting– path to success.

  2. In contrast to the frequent misuse of those lines of poetry, I present one case of an appropriate use.

    In a General Conference talk of April 2006, President Hinckley quoted the last three lines of “The Road Not Taken” — twice. Approaching age 96, President Hinckley wanted to get nostalgic. So, he used this Robert-Frost-ism to underscore a reflection upon the past 48 years of his life — time spent largely in the performance of duties as a general authority and, later, as a prophet of God.

    Following are select, relevant excerpts.

    > When a man reaches my age, he pauses now and again to reflect on what has led him to his present status in life. …
    >
    > … the life of the President of the Church really belongs to the entire Church. He has very little privacy and no secrets. …
    >
    > We all face choices in the course of our lives, some of them with a siren song of wealth and prosperity; others appear less promising. Somehow the Lord has watched over and guided my choices, …
    >
    > The old, wise heads are passing on. They were my friends. … Time has a way of erasing their memory. … forgotten by all but a few. A man must get his satisfaction from his work each day, must recognize that his family may remember him, that he may count with the Lord, but beyond that, small will be his monument among the coming generations.
    >
    > … all of this coming to pass because of the place in which the Lord has put me.
    >
    > https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2006/04/seek-ye-the-kingdom-of-god

    • Sorry. As much as I love President Hinckley, he absolutely gets it wrong here along with everyone else.

      He just quotes the final lines to suggest that the road less traveled by has made all the difference, when Frost’s point is that it hasn’t made all the difference and we delude ourselves into thinking it has in order to justify our choices.

      • I had considered siding that way. But reading through his talk again, I got the sense that he was still wondering where his other choices might have taken him.

        • Yes. Which is not what the poem is about. Frost is mocking those who rationalize their choices by assuming that a single decision “made all the difference,” when, in fact, it didn’t.

      • I follow what you’re saying; Walking a mile or two in Frost’s shoes, I would end up summarizing my complex life with soulless, meaningless, offence-free soundbites that attempt to elicit more catharsis than alarm — as if I was reading aloud the ending to a happy Jane Austin novel.

        So, I imagined Hinckley saying to himself, on some level between the conscious and the unconscious: “I could not possibly review what my life has made of me and do it any justice. Instead, like Frost, I can only hint to the listener that, one day, he may likewise find himself with insufficient words to describe his megaplex of experiences.”

        “And so,” Hinckley might have concluded, “the simplest way to get *that* point across is to suggest (twice) that, when the listener himself gets old and nostalgic, he should go back and review Frost’s words. Then, it will dawn on him that, likely, he had deluded himself into thinking all along that one choice alone had “made all the difference” — but can plainly see now that he was wrong, because it didn’t.