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Analysis “Road Not Taken” by Robert Lee Frost

Robert Lee Frost was a Pulitzer award-winning poet who was highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his use of American colloquial speech (Encyclopedia Britanica). His works typically involve settings of rural New England life from the start of the twentieth century. His works contain complex social and philosophical themes. The poem road not taken is no different. Commonly misrepresented as “The Road Less Traveled” because of the final lines of the poem it is the first poem of his 1915 collection known as Mountain Interval.

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Frost had intended the poem to be a jest towards his fellow poet and dear friend Edward Thomas. Thomas always complained that he should have chosen a different path, hence the road not taken. Even Frost was amused that people thought that this poem was supposed to be inspirational (Pritchard)

The Road Not Taken is Frost’s most quoted poem. Like most of Frost’s poems, it is lyrical. The poem as a whole has two themes. From a literal perspective, it is a celebration of individualism and a pain to non-conformity. A more critical interpretation of the theme is that it is about regret and personal mythmaking. Both themes will be discussed to provide a holistic study of the poem.

Literal Theme of Individualism / Non-Conformity

The very title “Road Not Taken” suggests that persona used by the poet is a non-conformist. The antonym of conformity a non-conformist figuratively as well as does not take the road taken by others. A non-conformist takes his path in life. He will choose his way.

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.

As can be seen in the opening paragraph, the persona is in a moment of crisis. He can see that there are two paths in the woods and that he can only choose one. He sees that there is an easy path that others take. In one path the grass has been trodden by numerous people passing through it. The other path had the grass grown tall and the grass wanted to wear, which is to say that it was an untrodden path. Note however that this is only established in the last stanza. For most of the poem, it appeared that both paths were the same. The persona establishes his individuality by choosing the road less taken toward the end.

There is a suggestion in the end that he took the proper road because “the road less traveled” has “made all the difference”. This would suppose that the theme of the poem is to glorify those who choose independence and personal freedom over conformity. By choosing the road not taken the persona is choosing his path to the exclusion of the other path. There is no turning back. Even if he decides that he prefers the other path he will have to backtrack wasting much time to return to the original path. The choice then is very important to the persona and it must be done with much discretion. Once a choice is made it may never be retracted. The choice should not be regretted because it was made freely.

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This theme is supported by the fact that the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken” which suggests that the road that was not taken has been permanently excluded by the choice of the harsher path. The crisis of having two choices is already over and the persona must simply bear the benefits or burdens of having made his choice.

Another support for this interpretation is a reading of Robert Frost’s own life. It is not unknown that his life was filled with grief and loss. For example, when he was just 11 his father died of tuberculosis leaving his family to impoverish with a meager $8 in savings. Just fifteen years later his mother died of cancer. Next to go was his sister Jeanie who was committed to a mental institution where she spent the last nine years of her life. Robert Frost, for most of his life, seems to be cursed by a demon of depression because his mother, his daughter, and even his wife suffered from depression. To add insult to the injury of Robert and Elinor Frost’s six children only two would survive their father.

Certainly, Robert Frost lived a tragic life despite his many successes, not the least his Pulitzer prizes and his numerous successful publication of his poems. His regrettable tragedies in early life may have been painted into his poem. Perhaps Frost is trying to make sense of the numerous tragedies of his life and that these are compensated for. In other words, Frost himself took The road not taken and earned success despite the tragedies that accompanied that success.

Ironic Theme

The Ironic Theme is also the one held by critics (Pritchard 2000). Critics think that the poem is about regret, personal myth-making, and rationalizing our decisions. The cornerstone of this interpretation is the last two lines which read “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”. Such lines are said to be ironic since the choice made little or no difference despite the persona’s claims to the contrary. In the second and third stanzas, it is said that both paths are worn and leaf-covered, there is no difference between them. It is only in the last stanza that he claims to recall that the road he took was the one “less traveled by”.

This theme of myth-making and rationalization can also be related to the way people tend to romanticize their past. During the present tense the persona saw no difference between the two paths. But in the end, he decides to claim that he took the road less traveled. Much in the same way that people who are forced into crisis, that is forced two choices between two mutually exclusive course of action, will later claim that they made the better choice. After all, to claim that the ‘road not taken’ was in fact the better choice is to cry over spilled milk and to engage in needless regret. It is just better to claim that the choice was the correct one. In the end the persona glorifies his choice by claiming that he took the road less taken.

This theme can also be built in concerning the life of Frost. Note that it was written in 1915 shortly after he returned from Europe because of the war. At this point he was already suffering from numerous tumults that had been visited in his life although he was already beginning to enjoy some success at this point. Perhaps even at this early point in his career he is already trying to justify that he took the correct road even if the said road was the more difficult one. Perhaps Frost himself is rationalizing and creating a myth of for himself and his readers. Perhaps he is simply trying to tell them to believe and glorify the path they took since they can no longer retract

Even the sigh in the poem can be seen as a theme of regret. After all, an ordinary person will commonly sigh when they are disappointed or regretful. However, this is perhaps overanalyzing the poem already because in a 1925 letter to Crystine Yates of Dickson, Tennessee, asking about the sigh, Frost replied: “It was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life (Finger 1978).” In other words to analyze the sigh from a thematic perspective is to over-analyze and imagine to ascribe some importance to something the author himself considered unsubstantial.

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The poem had a multitude of meanings hidden below the surface, it can be interpreted as a discourse on Frost’s own life and the decisions he was forced to make to the exclusion of other potential choices. However, it is believed that the literal theme and ironic theme are the most logical themes that can be put forward.

As a form of rebuttal to this theme it is possible that the poem itself is being over analyzed because, Frost merely wanted the poem to be a jest towards his friend Edward Thomas. Perhaps there is no deep underlying theme since Frost might have been literally describing his frequent walks with Thomas in the woods.

The poem had a multitude of meanings hidden below the surface, it can be interpreted as a discourse on Frost’s own life and the decisions he was forced to make to the exclusion of other potential choices. However, it is believed that the literal theme and ironic theme are the most logical themes that can be put forward. ‘The Road Not Taken,’ is the most famous example of Frost’s use of conscious irony and an example of how American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Lawrence p15) even Frost himself has warned us that “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky”. In conclusion perhaps, the poem is quite literally a poem about the road not taken in as much as it can be one of myth-making and rationalism. Perhaps it is neither and the reader is building themes and interpretations where there is none. Since Frost has already left us perhaps we can never know.


“Robert Frost”. Encyclopædia Britannica (Online edition ed.). 2008. Web.

Pritchard., William (1984). Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered.

Pritchard., William “On “The Road Not Taken””. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of English. Web.

Sullivan, John Jeremiah (2000). “The death of the hired poem: Robert Frost,, and the anxiety of affluence”. Harper’s Magazine.

Finger, Larry L. (1978). “Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”: A 1925 Letter Come to Light”. American Literature 50 (3): 478–479.

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Thompson, Lawrance. ed. Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York: Hold.

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