The Almost Universally Misinterpreted Poem “The Road Not Taken” and the Fascinating Story Behind It

The Almost Universally Misinterpreted Poem “The Road Not Taken” and the Fascinating Story Behind It


Robert Frost is one of the most critically
acclaimed American poets of the 20th century, which is a roundabout way of saying you almost
certainly studied one of his poems in school. Most likely, it was a short piece called The
Road Not Taken- a poem famous for being one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted
poems ever written, and a testament to how twisted the meaning of something can be by
taking a quote out of context. Oh, and it also played a small role in the
death of the guy it was written about. To begin with, the part of the poem most everyone
is intimately familiar is the last three lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” From this, and this alone, it would seem the
protagonist of the poem took the road less traveled by and this positively benefited
his life over taking the more commonly trodden path… While poems can have many different meanings
to different people, and certainly parts of this particular poem are very much open to
interpretation, what cannot be denied is that the central character of this poem unequivocally
does not actually take the road “less traveled”. You see, while it may come as a shock to those
of us that had a habit of occasionally nodding off in school, the poem has more than just
three lines, and the true meaning of (most of) it is fairly obvious if you just read
the entire thing all the way through. To wit, the protagonist of the poem goes out
of his way to make it clear that the two paths are virtually identical- neither is more traveled
than the other. The setup:
“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;” From this, you might actually think one was
less trodden, except for the next line when the traveler explains he was really just casting
about trying to find some reason to take one road or the other in the previous lines and
that in truth the roads seemed equally traveled: “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.” Of course, one can’t just stand around in
a wood all day, so a choice must be made. With no reason to choose one road over the
other, the traveler takes one, then consoles himself that he will simply come back another
time and see where the other road goes… before admitting that in this thought he was
really just trying to fool himself once again, as he had tried to do previously by attempting
to convince himself one path was less traveled than the other:
“Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.” In the end, he states the most famous part
of this poem, though including two key lines that are generally omitted when people are
quoting the last stanza of this piece: “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.” So, in the end, while he was very clear in
the present that the two roads were identical with no real reason to take one over the other,
later in life he knew he’d once again fool himself, this time successfully, by instead
remembering that one road was “less traveled by” and that this influenced his decision,
when in fact he really decided on a whim. Of course, it isn’t wholly clear at this
point whether in “ages and ages hence” he is sighing and noting “that has made
all the difference” out of contentment- that his reasoning was sound and that he made
the correct choice- or regret, that he’d not been able to see where the other path
went, perhaps to a better place than the one he chose on that fateful day. It is generally thought that the latter, “regret”,
notion is the “correct” interpretation, at least as far as the original intent of
the author. Perhaps speculatively backing this up is the
fact that the poem is called “The Road Not Taken”, rather than “The Road Less Traveled”,
priming the reader to focus on the former, rather than the latter. But is there any actual evidence to support
one interpretation over the other, at least as far as Frost was intending when he wrote
it (if he had any real intent at all)? Frost would later state of the poem, “You
have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky” (Letters xiv-xv). Frost also called the poem his “private
jest“. You see, Frost was well aware that people
would misunderstand “The Road Not Taken”. He experienced this fact when he first began
sharing it, with everyone taking the poem “pretty seriously”, as he noted after
reading it to a group of college students. He also later stated this was despite the
fact that he had been “doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling
… Mea culpa.” To delve further into the mystery, we must
look into the interesting origin of the poem. According to Frost, the poem was about his
very close friend Edward Thomas, a fellow writer and (eventual) poet in his last years
who Frost got to know very well during his time in England in the early 20th century. Frost later noted in a letter he wrote to
Amy Lowell that “the closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere
else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas”. During their time together, Frost and Thomas
took to frequently taking “talks–walking”- walks through the English countryside to look
for wild flowers and spot birds, and most importantly discuss all manner of topics from
politics and the war, to poetry and their wives, and everything in between. Frost later noted that during their random
walking about, frequently a choice had to be made over which path to take. Inevitably one would be chosen for one reason
or another and after their walks, Thomas would sometimes kick himself for not taking the
other path if their walk failed to result in the sighting of anything interesting. This ultimately caused Frost to quip that
Thomas was “a person who, whichever road he went, would
be sorry he didn’t go the other.” When he returned to America, Frost penned
the poem as a friendly, humorous jab about Thomas’ indecisiveness, sending an early
draft to Thomas titled, “Two Roads” in the early summer of 1915. Thomas reportedly misinterpreted it. Frost then explained the poem’s actual meaning,
even going so far as saying that “the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun
of the thing”. In response, Thomas noted that he felt that
Frost had “carried himself and his ironies too subtly” and that
“I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing, without showing them and
advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on.” Nonetheless, the poem had an effect on Thomas
and not long after reading it, as you’ll soon see, he decided to enlist in the army. This is something of a surprise move as Thomas
was not noted for being particularly patriotic, at least in terms of caring one way or the
other about the politics of the conflict resulting in WWI. Indeed, he was noted as being an anti-nationalist
who despised the propaganda and blatant racism against Germans being thrown about in the
British media at the time. He even went so far as to state that his real
countrymen were not Englishmen, but the birds. However, during the pairs’ walks, two things
occurred to begin making Thomas seriously consider what he’d do if the war was brought
to him. Would he flee for safer shores, or stand and
defend his country? One of the events occurred shortly after the
start of WWI. Thomas noted in his journal,
“a sky of dark rough horizontal masses in N.W. with a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange
low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up
to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing
to prevent it…” He later noted, “Something, I felt, had
to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape”. So while up to this point he had been indifferent
to the politics behind the war, he now began to consider that it really didn’t matter
what the war was being fought over; if the land and all that was on it was directly threatened,
it needed defending if it was to be preserved. The second event that influenced his decision
was something he often lamented after in letters. This concerned a matter of what he perceived
to be cowardice on his part, though most of us might consider that he was being the only
reasonable one in the ordeal. During one of Frost and Thomas’ walks in
later 1914, they were confronted with a shotgun wielding gamekeeper who told them to leave
the area. Frost felt he was fully in his rights to walk
the land in question and wasn’t inclined to bugger off, never mind the gun pointed
at him. Frost even nearly decided to bring his fists
to the gun fight, but put them down after observing Thomas backing away as Frost was
escalating the situation. A few more choice words later and the pair
parted ways with the gamekeeper. But this wasn’t the end of it. Frost decided to go find the gamekeeper’s
home, and after banging on the door, the gamekeeper answered. At this point, Frost, no doubt using eloquence
befitting a wordsmith of his stature, told the gamekeeper off once again, explaining
what would happen if said gamekeeper ever chose to threaten the pair again while they
walked. With that said, Frost and Thomas turned to
leave. As they were leaving, the gamekeeper grabbed
his shotgun and chose his first target as Thomas. Once again, Thomas, reasonably, reacted by
trying to exit the situation rapidly without provoking the person who had a gun trained
on him. In the end, the pair left unharmed. However, Thomas couldn’t help but dwell
on the fact that his friend had not backed down to a shotgun in his face, while he himself
reacted the opposite. He became woefully ashamed of what he perceived
as his cowardice in the matter. It also wasn’t lost on him that at that
very moment some of his other friends were off demonstrating their bravery fighting in
the war while he was safe at home. Frost later attributed this feeling Thomas
had of his perceived cowardice as the core reason he went to war. Essentially, Frost felt Thomas wanted a do-over
and was making another attempt at testing his mettle, this time in France. This brings us back to the poem and the decision
Thomas had been long agonizing over. He had strong thoughts of emigrating to America
to come live near Frost, stating, “I am thinking about America as my only chance (apart
from Paradise)”, but that he also felt drawn to the war: “Frankly I do not want to go,
but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless”. Then the poem arrived on his doorstep in the
early summer of 1915. And so it was that shortly thereafter in early
July of that year, he wrote to Frost telling him of his final decision on which road he’d
take: “Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out
to America… But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor
will pass me”. Today, the poem and its thought provoking
lines are generally regarded as being the “final straw” that made Thomas decide
to stop brooding over what to do and finally pick a road- finding his courage and enlisting. This came as a surprise to virtually everyone
in Thomas’ life due to the fact he was a 37 year old married father of three who, as
noted, was staunchly anti-nationalist and otherwise was not required to enlist. The decision cost him his life. On April 9, 1917 during the battle of Arras
in France, he was shot in the chest and killed- a death that was seemingly premature. Of course, had he taken the other road, perhaps
instead of a bullet through his chest, he may have met with a watery grave if his ship
to the states had been sunk. Or perhaps he would have spent many years
writing incredible poetry that was the hallmark of the last couple years of his life- happily
living and working next to his great friend, Robert Frost.

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  1. I've never liked Frost; he seems so pretentious. Of course, as a New Hampshirite, this is practically blasphemy. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  2. Incredible. I had studied this poem in college, but never saw the implications you pointed out. As a Vietnam era person, I was struck by Edward Thomas’ dilemma because it was the same decision process I went in when I dropped out of college in 1970 to join the army assuming I would go to Vietnam. As it turned out, I was erroneously promised a training I wasn’t physically equipped for so I got a discharge and going back to college signed up for ROTC to continue my draft deferment. Eventually, graduating a year late, I was commissioned a few months after second Lieutenants were sent to Vietnam so I served in the Reserves for eight years. Ever since, this has been a burden on my conscious. Like Thomas, I always wonder what would have happened on the path not taken.

  3. Simon, maybe you ought to stop acting as if people who lived 100 years ago had the same morals, priorities and values as we do now. Much less as if you had any remote idea of what they were thinking.

  4. "Ages and ages" refers to time to age and gain wisdom. The road less travelled is a metaphor for not following mainstream trends of others choices, but rather which appeals to his discernment having gained wisdom. The roads are the same as in initial appearances, but are still paths, which are his options. It is about making the best choice for you no matter if it appears obvious or how peers have done before.

  5. I've got a topic idea. In America, you always see signs that say, "Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft"

    WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN

  6. "he didn't like the racism against Germans." This is exactly why the term doesn't mean anything anymore, ppl constantly use it incorrectly

  7. I am not sure I agree. It seems to me that the protagonist is just describing his decision. The first stanza describes the situation. The second states that one path looked better, but possibly not. The third states that nether were traveled yet, so having chosen his path, he would like to go down the other path, but doubts he shall. The last states that he took the road less traveled.

    So:
    1st Stanza – Two paths;
    2nd Stanza – One path may or may not be better than the other;
    3rd Stanza – Chose a path, and committed to that path;
    4th Stanza – Path chosen was less traveled.

    I don't see how his indecisiveness in the second stanza means that the clear statement in the fourth stanza can be ignored.

    While I am aware that Frost stated that both paths are the same, it seems to me that his writing belied his words and revealed his true thoughts.

  8. Wow! That was heavy! Really interested me on many levels, and moved me. I had no idea about any of the things in this video! How engaging….

  9. Does it seem to anyone else like Frost and Thomas were lovers? Two guys who would go on long walks together looking for flowers. And one wanted to move to be closer to the other. Don't forget that Frost called Thomas the closest thing to a friend he ever made.

    It wouldn't be surprising or unusual for gay/bisexual men to marry and have children at that time. Of course, they could have just been really good friends, but I never wrote poems to my good friends or looked at flowers with them.

  10. I'm not much into poetry, so it means something that this is the only poem I memorized in school that I still remember by heart (as it turns out not quite, since my memory had a few words wrong). But that proves it's not a matter of only knowing the last three lines. Our teacher's explanation, though, was that it was about Frost's career. Frost, allegedly, chose to become a poet partly because it was a less traveled path, and in his day going back and changing one's career was unheard of. You don't have to disregard the rest of the poem to get this meaning. It does not say the two roads were the same, it says his passing there would make them about equal. To me the "both that morning equally lay" part refers to a different aspect of the two roads, that he could just as easily have taken the other path if he wanted to. I like this poem and my interpretation of it. It doesn't matter whether Frost actually meant something else.

  11. Absolutely correct! It pisses me off how stupid and lazy people are, so much so that they won't read a few more sentences, and rush to assume they know just what the writer is saying.

  12. Though only familiar prior to this with the first two and last two lines, I've always seen it more as the choice itself making a difference and one that is neither positive nor negative but simply is. Though I must admit it does carry a note of wondering what may have been once you know what to look for.

  13. This seems so sad. I didn't realise my distant cousin's Lover ("great friend," indeed) had been so influenced by this poem. As a teen in choirs, we sang the "Frostiana" compositions of this and other of Frost's poems. This in particular was a men's chorus arrangement. As a gay man, it spoke to me. Hearing this History, now that speaking is a haunt.

  14. If both had been traveled the same, once he goes down one path, the other would then be less traveled, if only by a degree of 1

  15. My honors junior year English class debated over this poem. I’ve never seen a more blood thirsty, literature geek filled potential rage fight over this in its entirety. I smartly kept “score” so as to stay neutral. Dear gawd. Shakespeare, Poe, etc.were also party to these events.

  16. I think Frost was ultimately responsible for his 'friends' death.
    One could only hope that he wrestled with feelings of guilt on a daily basis, but I'm guessing not.

    It was easy for Frost to keep shooting his mouth off to the Gameskeeper because the gun wasn't pointed at him,
    it was pointed at Thomas. It's easy to be a dick when someone else will have to pay for your actions.

    I mean, what a great guy! "I'm going to keep pissing you off because I'm not the one who's in any immediate danger."

    I generally don't give a rat's ass about poets, but my opinion of THIS one just took a nosedive.

  17. I have only two degrees of separation from Mr. Frost. My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Dukes, was once a penpal of Mr. Frost. She passed around some of his letters in class. This made us realize that the poet was not just some guy, but a real person. It made that section of the literature book a lot more interesting. Thank you Simon for interesting material and intelligent discussion. And thank you Mrs. Dukes, wherever you are, for making a poem relevant and a poet real.

  18. i always thought the poem was about how it didnt actually make a difference which one you took in the sense that once you did take one of the paths there would always be the one not taken, which you could then project literally anything on.
    So taking either of the paths are the same from before you took it since you know nothing about the options, and after taking one of the paths you can only know what happened on that one and the knowledge of the other cant be known, which would be the case regardless of the path actually taken so they are in essence the same before and after the decision.

  19. Persuent to the concept of the death of the author, its imposible for someon to be 'wrong' about how they interpret a work of fiction thus they are not 'wrong' they just do not agree with the original author's interpretation and have provided there own and when nearly everyone belives something has a particular meaning, then that meaning is now the 'accepted' meaning
    so if the 'misconception' is near universal it is no longer a misconception, it is the accepted meaning of the work

  20. We studied the one about winter. Might be this one, idk. As much as I love music and art, poetry has never been my thing.

  21. There's no such thing as misinterpretation. you can relate any quotes you like. if it's beneficial for you, go for it.

  22. Simon, you just shot down thousands of 12 step program participants who have this quote on sticky notes attached to bathroom mirrors.

  23. In High School (ending in 1971 for me) we sand two Randall Thompson songs from 1959 in a series he called Frostiana. The were The road Not Taken and Choose Something Like A star. I remember them today. I've never felt any ambiguity regarding their meaning.

  24. As you say, poems can be interpreted in different ways, which is almost the whole point of poetry.

    I think you yourself may have misinterpreted the poem. To me, it is not about comparisons of one path to another.

    It is simply saying that we don't realise, in the moment, the effects seemingly trivial choices will have on our future.

    It is the butterfly effect, in verse.

  25. I took the road with no poetry or study of English literature and I'm pretty sure I took the right one. Too many loons on that other one. 😎

  26. I found and read through the whole poem while looking for poems on disappointment and/or regret. Top of the list were The Road Not Taken and Maud Müller.

  27. I liked this poem, as this is the first time I've heard or seen the full poem and not just the last stanza. BTW: I find the sepia speckle over the photos make them look terrible.

  28. Seems like the dude was going to leave his wife and 3 kids no mater what. Unless he went to America and bought his with and kids. but like you say the boat sank thus killing the whole family.

  29. Some people are more susceptible to get guilt-ridden more than others and that leads unbearable states of mind. Well, in the end that's the history of Europe, being a guilt-culture, for the most past. That's why so many things are done in Europe to try to alleviate a permanent state of guilt, from climate change to personal diet, from centuries' old mistakes to the conundrum of national versus European identities, they are always divided (brexit anyone?).

  30. there is no "misinterpretation" of poetry. whoever believes so is asserting that their deductions are the only possibly "correct" ones.

  31. So 'worn both about the same' becomes identical? Perhaps, despite his doubts, he did 'come back' & realise that his road was 'less travelled by'? Interpretations are only wrong if they are contrary to the written word – not if they happen to differ from the author's. When Lady Macbeth says 'Woe, alas! What, in our house?' – do you know the correct interpretation of that?

  32. The poem to me was always about life's choices and
    no matter what choice you made there will always be that
    thought in your mind as to where the other road would of lead
    you to.

  33. So i tried doing the patreon thing, and get the gps package, but i couldn't find the way to do it… Can you help somehow?

  34. Good luck with multiple interpretations. It's still the wrong one. [turns the page] You have 3min50sec to review and answer each question about the poem "Autumn," and no "Nostalgic and wistful" is not the mood.

  35. The fate of Edward Thomas really makes you think. Here we have by all accounts a master poet who could have contributed to the world for decades. But he did not, as he was killed in the war. J. R. R. Tolkien was also in the war, but he survived and we all know his contributions. But how many potential Tolkiens have we lost to war? Could it be that the greatest book ever written was not written because it's author died all alone and scared knee-deep in mud in a dugout somewhere, with a bullethole in his chest? We will never know.

  36. Today I found out I’m not so keen sitting through an ad at the beginning of the video, only to then be bombarded by another minute-long commercial in-video.

    Edit: and FFS another ad towards the end! The ratio of content: commercial is worse here than in TV programming.

    Unsubbed

  37. So many lives destroyed by a war that really was unnecessary and would lay the foundations for WWII and even more lives lost. How different would our world be if the powers at the time had chosen not to start WWI?

    Not that that would ever have actually happened of course, war is far too popular, at least amongst the powers that be who aren't doing the fighting and dying.

  38. Nice, but I don't care what the 'real' meaning is. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the meaning of a poem; what speaks to you, speaks to you. I like the idea that even a misinterpretation can lead to inspiration and moving hearts.

  39. You literally explained how the poem is not about regret over the path not taken and then proceed to explain how it is exactly that.

  40. I find the poem rather muddled and self-contradictory. That allows people to make of it whatever they will. Perhaps that's the secret to it's popularity and success.

  41. “There's a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork. … All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people just walk along them the wrong way.”- Terry Pratchett

  42. “There's a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork. … All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people just walk along them the wrong way.”- Terry Pratchett

  43. I think that if Thomas had chosen to emigrate to America instead, he'd have seen himself as a coward for the rest of his life.

  44. You are continuing the trend. This is a garbage video. Unsubscribed now because u r annoying and make stupid points that barely make sense just to be outrageous.

  45. I've had this argument with Teachers before, "Just because I get something different than you expected from a written work doesn't mean I'm wrong!" What you take away from a book or a poem is what it meant to you and that is personal and It's valid, just as valid as anyone else's be they Bum or Professor. The idea that because the Writer had a bad childhood and their third daughter's name was Ruth you are supposed to only have this one, correct, Interpretation is ridicules.

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