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.”
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.