Two Roads

While walking along a path with a non-American friend of mine, I asked whether he’d heard the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”.

Of course, any American friend of mine would have already heard of it, but this guy hadn’t. So once I got home, I looked it up and sent it to him. Upon re-reading it, it occurred to me for the thousandth time that everyone (including me) usually thinks of the poem meaning one thing, when it clearly must mean something else.

As a refresher, the poem ends this way:

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

So most people assume that the poem is Frost’s advice that people should take the road less traveled. That they should venture into unknown territory, dance to the tune of their own drummer, be different, be unconventional, be unique.

But a look at the actual poem discredits that idea. He actually says that the paths were more or less the same. Ok, one was ever-so-slightly less traveled. But barely so, and neither were traveled greatly at all.

Frost was just saying that he chose a particular way, and he can’t change that. The poem would have the exact same meaning if he had chosen the path more traveled, or if he had said that he chose the road with fewer oak trees, or any other distinguishing item. He made a choice and can’t have them both.

If reading the poem doesn’t convince you, do a little research and you’ll see that I’m right.

Here’s the whole poem:

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.

11 Responses to Two Roads

  1. Dave C. December 30, 2007 at 11:29 am #

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Btw, I blame M. Scott Peck, in part, for propagating the mis-reading.

  2. Josh January 8, 2008 at 5:40 pm #

    I actually use the last two lines of this quote on my My Space page (heh heh), invoking the assumed meaning.

    It’s the romantic in me.

    One thing, though – I don’t think your assessment is irrefutable.

    When he says “I shall be telling this with a sigh”, is that a sigh of regret (that he could not travel both, which he does allude to) or relief (that he followed his heart)?

    Despite what’s come before, we can’t tell with 100% assertion what he means with that last bit.

  3. weeklyrob January 8, 2008 at 8:08 pm #

    I think we can say what he meant, because we don’t usually discount all the lines that came before the one in question.

    But luckily, we don’t have to guess. To quote myself, “do a little research and you’ll see that I’m right.” But damn it, if I want something done right, I guess I have to do it myself. So here goes….

    Robert Frost. Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, 23 Aug. 1953:

    “I wasn’t thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”

  4. Josh January 8, 2008 at 11:55 pm #

    But what does he mean with “and that has made all the difference”?

    Isn’t that a comment about the way things went, not just that he’s sorry he couldn’t go down both? What is the “difference”? (Perhaps it is just a simple thing – that his life was different – and there is actually sadness in that line, not hope, which I think is the whole point of your post.)

    Also, why drive home in the last part that he took “the one less traveled by”? Why not just say “I took one of them”? You’re saying it’s nothing more than just to distinguish them?

  5. weeklyrob January 9, 2008 at 9:55 am #

    It’s nothing more than distinguishing them. He had described one as being almost inconsequentially less traveled. It’s not much of a call to be different when the difference is one that’s so incredibly small.

    “the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same”

    He could have, as I said in my post, used the one more traveled to make the same point. I wish he had chosen something that people couldn’t interpret, like “the one with more pine cones,” but then we’d have people saying that pine cones represent difficulties in life.

    And sure, “that has made all the difference” could be a comment about how things went. Every choice we make affects how things go. But that certainly doesn’t imply that it’s BETTER or WORSE.

    It just says that it made a difference in his life. Every path we choose makes a difference, and the voice is wishing he could try them all. At least, according to the words of the poem and the words of the poet when describing his poem.

  6. Josh January 9, 2008 at 10:38 am #

    You’re right, he shouldn’t have left something that could be interpreted, especially something as metaphorical as “the one less traveled by.”

    Still, there’s something about the way he wrote that last line:

    “and that has made ALL the difference”

    To me, that suggests something more that just the ho-hum, matter-of-fact, idea.

    Why didn’t he just write:

    “and that has made the difference”?

    Again, that’s just the dreamer in me, reading what I want to read.

    Way to shatter the sweet illusion for me!

  7. weeklyrob January 9, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    You’re like all the rabbis trying to find meaning in “all the days of our lives” rather than “the days of our lives.”

    Keep searching, against all reason. Have fun.

    And everything can be interpreted. He thought he was being pretty clear, but you’ve found a way!

  8. BruceS January 10, 2008 at 11:43 am #

    “I think we can say what he meant, because we don’t usually discount all the lines that came before the one in question.”
    We? You got a mouse in your pocket? This whole thing came up because we, in the sense of “most people passingly familiar with the lines” *do* usually discount all the earlier lines. We usually discount them so far as to ignore them completely and blissfully just quote the ending. In fact, this is a common theme in quotations and adages, that things are taken out of context, mixed up in sense, or made up. Play it again, Sam. Of course, I could really care less.

    Josh, it sounds like you’re saying the common interpretation is correct because you really want it to be. According to Richard Bach, you’re right. I don’t recommend acting on this philosophy as a general practice, though.

  9. weeklyrob January 10, 2008 at 1:47 pm #

    I do, in fact, have a mouse in my pocket.

  10. BruceS January 11, 2008 at 4:25 pm #

    LOL. FWIW, I don’t lament the road not taken, because I take all roads.

  11. weeklyrob January 12, 2008 at 8:49 am #

    Very quantum of you.

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