The Road Not Taken: by Robert Frost | Summary and Analysis

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The Road Not Taken

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,

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.

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.

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;
The Road Not Taken

Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      The Road not Taken by Robert Frost was first published in 1916, in the volume of poems entitled Mountain Interval. It has been acknowledged as one of the finest and most popular poems of the volume. In the poem, we find a rare blend of 'inner lyric vision and the outer contemplative narration'. The poet's creative faculty gets enlivened when he faces the problem of having to choose one of the two roads at a bifurcation. Here the poet takes his chance and comments on the difficulty and importance of having to make a choice. As G.W. Nitchie points out, this poem has for its theme, one of the major themes in Frost's poetry - the problem of having to make a choice.

Summary:

      Untermeyer gives the analysis of the poem in the following manner. Relating the poem to the reality of Frost's experience. Untermeyer says that Frost has gone his own way. It was not he that chose his destiny. He was inevitably guided towards his destination by some spirit, some unseen forces that keep working on man. This inevitability, which apparently has an element of choice is brought in this oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood poem The Road not Taken.

      In this poem, Frost tells us that as he was travelling alone one day he found himself to have reached a point where the road divided into two. Frost found it difficult choosing to take one road out of the two. He was indecisive and lingered on for some time. Ultimately he was able to choose one road - the road which he thought was frequented by fewer people than those that took to the other road. But the poet also realised immediately that there was no real difference because his going through the road would have worn it about the same. Even at this crucial moment of having to make a choice, the poet was aware of the importance of the choice - in general as well as in particular. In general, the poet realises that a person has very often to make choices. One cannot always have the best of everything. It is in making a choice that one has to order one's priorities and is tested. In particular, the poet has an intuition that one day he will look back in retrospect and perhaps be glad that he took the less frequented road. And this is what has made difference to the poet.

      "And that has made all the difference". The poet's difference is a characteristic part of him and is in him, ingrained in him - even before he launched on his career as a poet. The road that Frost took, (though not wholly of his choice) was not only a different road - it was a very lonely road, very few people took to it. But as destiny had it, it was the right road for Frost, the road he was, bound to take.

Critical Appreciation:

      George Nitchie points out that the problem of choice is one of the major themes in Frost's poetry. It is like a resting-point to which Frost keeps returning on and often. Along with this poem, Frost has written many poems in which the question of making a choice is the central point - choices that have to be made compulsorily, choices that have been made, choices that could not be made. Crucial moments when choices have to be made are distinct spots of time in human life and hence find recurring mention in literature right from Homer down to our present day fiction. But their constant recurrence in Frost's works have more to them than the obvious fact that Frost is a writer. With Frost, these moments become the theme themselves, not just a prop or a backdrop for developing his themes. Perhaps, if asked, Frost would define man as a choice-making animal. From birth till death, he has to make choices at every step - he chooses deliberately - and in the best of men, it (this act of making a choice) is often coupled with a thorough knowledge of the consequences implied in making the choice.

      In The Road not Taken, the problem of choice is very elementary. There are no obvious reasons for Frost preferring one road to the other. There are no residues of self-respect, moral obligation, not even curiosity in Frost's preference of the road he finally did take. In interviews, conversations and lectures, Frost always stresses that though the road he had taken had:

"...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..."

      Hence, we find that the poet's choice was logically incomprehensible and appears wholly arbitrary, whimsical and undetermined. But perhaps it was not without an intuitive impulse that it was motivated.

      Yvor Winters has spared no pains to speak in strong, derogatory terms about this poem. He has shown the wrath and ire of his angry mind through his devastating pen. In his well-known essay, "Robert Frost; or the Spiritual Drifter as Poet", in one clean sweep. Winter has criticised, along with this poem, several others like The Sound of the Trees, The Hill Wife and The Bearer of Evil Tidings Winters feels: "All have a single theme: the, whimsical, accidental and incomprehensible nature of the formative decision, and I should like to point out that if one takes this view of the formative decision, one has cut oneself off from understanding most of human experience, for in these terms there is nothing to be understood". At another place (in the same essay), Winters says that in The Road not Taken and The Sound of the Trees, Frost is mistaking whimsical impulse for moral choice, and this blunder obscures his understanding and we get a feeling that his mood regarding the value of the entire business is very uncertain. Winters deduces that Frost might be vaguely afraid that once again he may be neither wrong nor right.

      Simplicity, clarity, epigrammatic force and terseness are the hallmarks of the stanzas, each consisting of five lines. Each line has eight syllables with slight variations here and there to impart informality and casualness of tone. It is a personal lyric and is devoid of the parentheses, the dashes, the pauses and exclamations that are found in the dramatic lyrics. Speaking about the stanza form in this and some other poems, Thompson says that "an entirely different modification occurs when the four-stress lines are used in certain forms which are related to the ballad; the five lines-stanzas, the six lines-stanzas, or the combined five and three stress-lines. One pattern of rhyme is established in the single stanza of the five lines-epigram in 'In Neglect', thus: a-b, a-a-b-; it is used again in My November Guest, In a Vale, All Revelation and The Road not Taken."

      Let us see what Frost himself has to say about this poem. He says that this poem was about Edward Thomas, his English poet friend who was killed in World War 1, quite early in his life. "This has something to do with the same question of being understood and not being understood. It is one of the great ones of literary criticism. There is an old school of art that insists on the right to be misunderstood by everybody. Some say that we must insist that we write for no audience at all. There must be an audience, an audience invisible, a blend of all the interesting people whom I have dealt with".

      We ourselves, as readers feel that though the decision of the poet is incomprehensible, his predicament is totally familiar to us. We also feel at though the poem is quite good, Frost is shirking responsibility. He lays on the reade, the burden of critical intelligence, which, properly speaking, should be borne by the poet.

      The Road not Taken is a typical Frost poem for hiding deep meaning beneath a surface simplicity. To a reader who does not ponder over this poem seriously the theme is very simple. When we find two roads going in different directions and we are not very much familiar with either, we stana hesitatingly for a while and take one of them at random. But there is symbolic interpretation. One way to read the poem is that the poet is confronted with two different types of poetic development and modes or poetical presentation. One is the traditional way much in use among his contemporaneous poets. The other is the style not followed by the majority - and this is what the poet ultimately chooses. The closing line:

And that has made all the difference

      Emphasises the fact that the poet does not regret his choice. What is true of the poet, is true for any man - and thus this small experience takes on universal symbolic significance. For a man of courageous calibre, choosing a particular step on the spot is very essential. He cannot afford to waste time in hesitation. The far-reaching consequences should be visualised, no doubt, but that does not justify circulatory tactics of any manner whatsoever. As in the case of many of Frost's poems, this poem is also much misunderstood and adversely criticised. It is said that Frost behaves like a 'spiritual drifter' unable to make a definite choice because he lacked the intelligence and energy essential in the making up of a major poet. However, considering the human situation as a whole, we can only appreciate the symbolic relevance of the poem. Choice is something inevitable in our life. And whatever choice has been made, one has to suffer its consequences, good or bad.

Conclusion:

      The Road not Taken shows Frost's art and versatility marching ahead on the road of progress. Ironically, it is the first person speaker himself who candidly presents himself to us, with all his faults and foibles. Very unselfconsciously he reveals himself to us as one who is Hamlet-like, who is too intelligent and conscious to do anything without pondering (a bit too much) on the pros and cons of it. But unlike Hamlet, he regrets the choices he makes. When he has made his choice he wistfully yearns for the alternative which he has been forced to reject. He has not yet come to terms with the fact that Man must learn to accept and live with his limitations. We notice that when the road forks, the narrator regrets that he possibly cannot travel both roads because he is 'one traveller'. He learns painfully that Man cannot have things all his own way; he is not only bound to make a choice but also that the choice he makes is irrevocable. One must hope to get the best of everything. Man's vision encompasses manifold more than what he can get in his arms. Yes, one may always look heavenward and aspire for the stars but one must never forget that one has to walk on the earth.

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