It’s likely that if you ever had a class in high school named Classic American Poetry, American Literature, even during Writing 101 on your first semester of college, you came across a particular poem that is said to exemplify the American Dream, Way of Life, etc. While there are many works that come to mind, I bet that when you see that I’m talking about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” you’ll feel a particularly dread of remembrance. In case you’re suffering from selective amnesia, or truly don’t remember or know about this work of verse, here’s a reading by actor Alan Bates for a Union Bank of Switzerland ad.
It’s not that I don’t like the poem, personally. I’ve been hit with it in the head so many times that I’ve wondered if there’s some subliminal message I was supposed to get the first time I had to write a paper on it —I think it might’ve been middle school. But then in high school and college this golden oldie came back again. Luckily, the last time I had to reflect on the meaning of this piece, the teacher actually made a commentary that, in the words of the poet, “has made all the difference.” I remember hearing how the poem has actually been misread for most of its existence. It’s not even just me or my professor from my second semester in college saying that. I have found more than a few commercials blatantly quoting the poem —I’ve been told there are more. One of these is an ad for Ford Motors that was only released in New Zealand. I guess that the main thing to understand is how this poem has become intrinsically related to the ideal of America.
Now let’s start reading into the poem to get some context. But, instead of turning this into a flashback of writing an eight-page paper on something you really didn’t know how to stretch, keep in mind how much the advertising industry just loves to reuse this work of poetry over and over. You know, instead of choosing to use from the myriads of other poems.
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.
So the thing is this: While it’s easy to focus on the final line as being central to the whole story, even Robert Frost got exasperated at the fact that people would often read his poem as meaning plenty of things, except what he originally intended. One such instance was when famous critic Robert Graves claimed “The Road Not Taken” was about Frost’s decision to not enlist in the army. This misread has led to the work of verse being recited alongside promotional pieces for stories on zombies, post-apocalyptic video games, hiking and outdoor companies, and even when presenting a new design for a computer.
The first tentative title of the poem was actually “Two Roads.” Perhaps this would’ve hinted at the fact that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters in more than one way, when it comes to this work. As the poem tells us, both roads were the same; the narrator just happened to choose one over the other. During our life we encounter numerous forks in the road where our instincts are tested. We go through our lives looking back, wondering if we did the right thing. But the real world isn't a movie. Once a choice is made we need to realize that nothing is set in stone, we can mend out mistakes, apologize, or continue to search for happiness. The selections we make are not likely to bring the end of days. Most of the time, the only one who is affected or changed is us.
But then we reach the last line, the guilty party of all this confusion. It has become an emblem of being unique, brave, and different. People have taken it up as a badge of honor for choosing to go against the crowd. I guess that what makes it an “American” way of seeing the world, aside from the hiking woodsy imagery and that it was written by a famous American poet, is the symbolism of doing something different. But, perhaps that’s why people continue to misread it. Since the poem actually tells us there’s nothing special about our life or even ourselves, the fact that people continue to disregard the facts, in favor of what feels nicer, is fascinating.
Maybe in the end Robert Frost actually did one pretty cool thing, whether he intended to or not. He proved how we as humans will choose to overlook or misread what is right in front of us in order to see what we want to see, hear, believe, or, as in this case, read.
If you're feeling in the mood for some more poetry, check out these beautiful Persian poems or a couple by Wilfred Owen written during the First World War.
To read some more detailed and scholarly commentary on the misconception surrounding "The Road Not Taken," check out these links from Poets.Org and The Paris Review.