Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California, which is a surprising fact to many people. Although he lived in small apartments throughout the city during his first 11 years, Frost is more commonly associated with the natural scenes of the New England countryside that is used in his poetry (Gerber 1967). His early years were characterized by difficult economic circumstances and an unpredictable, often violent but much loved father while his mother instilled in her son a love for the country. When his father died, the 11-year-old Frost moved with his mother and sister to his paternal grandparents’ home in Massachusetts until his mother found a teaching post in nearby Salem.
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Life was always a struggle for Frost and his family, but he did well in school and helped on the farm and eventually earned a scholarship to Dartmouth, supplemented by his grandfather, in 1892. However, things didn’t work out quite the way he’d planned and he soon returned home to take over his mother’s unruly classroom. He did this and other odd jobs until his fiancé Eleanor graduated from St. Lawrence University and they could get married (Gerber 1967).
From here Frost again attended school, this time at Harvard, until it became necessary for him to devote himself full-time to supporting a growing family. His grandfather bought him a farm that Frost attempted to work, but eventually returned to teaching, through it all demonstrating a heavy preference and talent in the area of literature. However, by this time, his writing was beginning to gain recognition and he was developing his own style and poetic approach.
Much of Frost’s life can be seen in light of the conflict between city and academic life and long walks in the country as a means of finding revelation. One of the more common themes within Frost’s poetry is the theme of wandering alone in the wilderness, often as a means of either finding one’s way or losing oneself in the greater landscape. “The Road Not Taken” is one of his early poems, written in 1915 at a time when Frost was just returning to America after having spent some time in England.
The first stanza of the poem establishes the setting and the mood of the poem. It opens with the line “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” This immediately places the reader within an idyllic, timeless, peaceful place within nature. Frost is able to do this by using words such as ‘diverge’, which suggests leisure time and a lack of concern. The wood he is in is yellow, which is a color most often associated in the Western culture with happiness, friendship and pleasant sunshine.
Rather than pausing to determine which road he’s going to take, he seems to be wishing he could take both roads at the same time and remember all of the experiences of both. While the first path was described as having undergrowth that prevented a longer view, the second path is described as grassy, indicating that perhaps it is more in the sun. This invokes a sense of security, an idea of brighter prospects and perhaps a clearer view of what may occur in the future. The natural setting manages to evoke an abstract philosophical concept regarding the journey of human life and a sense of the time and security to consider it.
The idea that the paths are equal is explicitly stated in the third stanza, as is the concept that once the choice has been made, there is no recapturing the other option, bringing the poem into greater contextual meaning. In describing the paths, Frost says “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” (11-12). Since he will be the first person to step on either path today, it cannot be said with any degree of accuracy which path was more frequently traveled to give him guidance.
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Frost now points out one of the common fallacies individuals tell themselves as they pass through life, “I kept the first for another day” (13). Again using nature as a metaphor, Frost allows this simple statement to stand futilely against the knowledge that he will probably never pass this way again. The idea that you can never go back again is illustrated in the poem when Frost says, “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (14-15).
The poem ends with the comment, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence” (16-17). This opening to the last stanza invokes a sense of the sadly nostalgic, as if the speaker will be still regretting the fact that they could not experience both roads at once. This is the subject of a letter by Robert Frost written in 1925 regarding the poem. According to the individual bringing it forward, the letter was written in response to a young girl who had written to ask Frost why he feels he will look back with a sigh.
According to Frost, “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” (cited in Finger 478). Yet within this bit of humor remains a grain of deeper truth. While a comparison of the ends of the two roads might reveal he found the better way, there is no way for him to know this and thus he will never know whether his sigh is in satisfaction or in regret.
In the end, though, the nature of this ultimate sigh is not important. “I took the road less traveled by / And that has made all the difference” (19-20). The word focused on here is typically ‘difference’, usually interpreted to mean Frost’s decision to take the less traveled road brought about positive changes in his life because of this difference. However, Frost seems to be focusing on the word ‘I’, meaning he has made his own decision as to which road was the better road for him and it is in making this decision for himself that makes all the difference. This deeper interpretation was encouraged by Frost. According to Finger (1978), he once told an audience, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky” (478) when referring to this poem.
Thus, in the end, the underlying message seems to be that individuals should make choices in their lives based on their own paths and their own inclinations because it is almost never possible to turn back and try the other path. This has the ring of transcendentalism as Frost examines a new conception of the choices in life. According to Monteiro (1988), Frost “insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet [Edward Thomas].”
Edward Thomas was a close friend of Frost’s during his stay in Gloucestershire and the two men would often take walks through the countryside. Frost often claimed the poem was based on this experience. “Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a ‘better’ direction” (Monteiro 1988).
While Frost might have written the poem with humor in mind and with a light-heart in thinking about his friend, the use of the road as imagery for life’s journey is demonstrated by Monteiro to be too prevalent for its significance to have escaped Frost’s attention.
However, as it had been represented in the past and revealed by Montiero, this divergence in the woods had traditionally only provided two possibilities. One path led to God and heavenly bliss while the other led to material joy but everlasting damnation. Frost’s approach, presenting the two paths as relatively equal, all things considered, suggests a more transcendental approach, as reflected in Dickinson in which there is more than one path to find fulfillment/enlightenment/salvation, and refuses to provide any answers regarding the ultimate outcome.
Finger, Larry L. “Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: A 1925 Letter Come to Light.” American Literature. Vol. 50, N. 3, (1978): 478-489.
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. Louis Untermeyer. New York: Washington Square Press, 1971: 223.
Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Boston: Twayne, 1967.
Monteiro, George. “Roads and Paths (Chapter 5).” Robert Frost & The New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988: 44-53.