The Road Not Taken”, penned by American poet Robert Frost in 1915 and first published in 1916 as part of the Mountain Interval collection, has been embraced and popularized by readers over the last century for the universal meaning gleaned from its simple, twenty lines of verse.
Frost’s early career in America was marginally successful, with the publishing of a handful of poems in literary magazines. Frost moved to England from New England in an attempt to refocus and revitalize what he felt was a paused literary career by connecting with like -minded professionals such as Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound. The literary community in England, like the country itself, was made up of dissonant groups, rebelling against the status quo. Frost published two collections- A Boy’s Will which was met with mixed reviews and North of Boston which was a major success, lauded by Thomas, giving him “standing as a poet”.( 1) Frost’s work was revolutionary for its time and, along with the backing of his supporters, was guiding his career to a new level.
The Road Not Taken was created following Frost’s rise in England’s literary community, when he was confident that his move was having the impact he hoped for to give his career the momentum it needed.
Frost’s work was born from the friendship that Robert Frost had developed with a literary contemporary, Edward Thomas, while Frost was living in England between 1912 and 1915, right before England became involved in World War I. A favorite shared activity was walking through the English countryside together, and engaging in conversation or quietly enjoying nature by looking for rare wildflowers or birds eggs. Thomas would often choose the route for the two to walk, confident that he could show his friend the treasures of the English countryside that were so familiar to him. Unfortunately, many times the direction they selected was not fruitful, and Thomas, a troubled soul, became anxious when he could not deliver the experience he had promised to Frost and wondered what the other route they did not take would have yielded a more satisfying experience. As a shared joke, Frost wrote the poem, then titled “Two Roads” on an envelope and sent it to Thomas; the references to selecting a path and the “sigh” in the final stanza were reminders of the two men’s walks together and Thomas’ reflection on taking the wrong path. Unfortunately, Thomas never saw the humor that Frost meant in the poem, and he challenged Frost that no one else would either. When Frost presented the poem to a college audience, their reaction confirmed Thomas’ perspective- it was interpreted literally, and taken as a serious work.
Frost returned to America with renewed American interest in his work; Atlantic Monthly published “The Road Not Taken” in August 1915. Thomas, after much deliberation, decided not to follow Frost to America and enlisted with English forces to fight in the war, tragically dying in 1917 just 2 months into his service.
Interestingly, Frost conducted his life in a very free-spirited manner, which is not in line with the idea of your conscious choices making a difference in your life. When he decided to move to England for his career’s sake, some biographies indicate that he flipped a coin to decide whether to move to Canada or England. When he moved back to America, it was because of the outbreak of World War I and to ensure the safety of his family; he did not choose to leave, he reacted to an event. Once he returned, he chose several roads in search of those that made a difference.
Frost worked tirelessly at his craft between 1915 and his death in 1963. He remained active teaching and supporting poetry in the US through several outlets. He gave talks, readings, and organized poet’s lecture series. He worked at Amherst College, the University of Michigan, University of Miami, Harvard, and Dartmouth. He also spent every summer and fall for 42 years (1921-1963) teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. This collective activity helped keep all his works, including The Road Not Taken, fresh to new students and audiences. He was unmatched in his Pulitzer Prize record, winning four times (1924, 1931, 1937, 1943). He was a revered figure in the US and, in today’s terms, he would be considered a celebrity.
Frost remained in the public eye throughout his life. He was honored by the US Senate on his 75th and 85th birthdays (1950 & 1960). In 1957 he received doctoral degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. He read a poem at the 1961 presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
The Road Not Taken, has been printed prolifically over the 100+ years since it was written. Frost’s primary agreement for publishing was with Holt, which lasted from 1916 through 1975. A list of books with the poem that can be purchased on Amazon today:
?Collected Poems (Holt, 1939)- Published his works from 1916 –
?Frost’s Complete Poems (1949)
?The Road Not Taken, An Introduction to Robert Frost (1957)
?The Road Not Taken: A selection of Robert Frost’s Poems (Owl ,1985)
? The Road Not Taken and Other Poems (Dover Thrift , 1993)
?The Road Not Taken, A collection of Poems (Big Fish Publishing, 2010)
?The Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2014, Oxford Press)
?The Road Not Taken and Other Poems 100th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Penguin 2015)
Frost cautioned his audience that with The Road Not Taken “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem, very tricky.” (2) In the decades after it was first published, “The Road Not Taken” was interpreted very literally as a motivational poem that is endorsing self-reliance. The road less traveled suggests the idea of taking a different direction than those of the masses, and the line “and that has made all the difference” indicates that the risk of following your own choices has the opportunity for reward. Looking back, poet critics considered the time when the poem was “reader-resistant” and no one heeded Frost’s warning about the trickiness of the work.
In recent years, there have been several literary professionals (Mark Richardson, David Orr) who have taken on the challenge of understanding Frost’s poem beneath the veneer evident to most readers. As a nation, America is unique in that it is a nation of choice, assuming that the unknown brings a better life; we admire the individualism and can-do attitude that Frost’s work appears to be celebrating. We accept the obvious references to the characteristics that has made our country great and don’t look any further.
Orr suggests there is another interpretation that lurks among our all American view of the work. Perhaps the road was not chosen for any particular reason, was not one less travelled, and did not make all the difference. The references to the sameness of the choices, and the prediction that the selected journey will eventually be considered as making all the difference, makes the reader contemplate if we perceive differences in choice and outcome even if there are none to make us satisfied with the outcome.
A common question that arises is why is the poem is titled “the road not taken” when it was “the road less traveled” that made all the difference? Is Frost asking us to consider what is more worth contemplating- what we did (and accepting its outcome) or what we did not do (and what might have been)? So are there really two poems weaved within this one work? The first is the depiction of the path in life not taken and lamenting what would have been different if that choice had been made. The second is the path in life that is different than the norm, and the benefits (real or imagined) that resulted from making that choice.
Diving even deeper into the semantics, the critics see more of Frost’s self- proclaimed tricks. The purposeful use of the word road seems to be suggesting that there is no less travelled path, since roads are constructed by people for the purpose of travelling. So choice is within the already determined road, indicating that the direction is determined by the road with little chance for variation or influence of the traveller.
Further analysis highlights Frost’s description of the roads, which makes them really sound not that different. The message here seems to be that there are no clear choices- one is as good as another? We are not following a chosen way through life but there is a series of events that becomes our life.
The Road Not Taken has infiltrated almost every aspect of our current day culture and world, attesting to the popularity of its message. This continued admiration of the poem is discussed by Orr in his 2015 book. He writes that Frost’s work “plays on our uncertainties in a distinctly American way to think about choice.” (12) Further he states that ” it would even be how we as a people would dream about choice since we unconsciously believe that our choices are our own, should be willed freely and can, if important and hard, make us show who we are” (13).
Looking on Amazon, we can find 384 possible items that are associated with the poem such as posters, and plaques. A quick internet inquiry of commercials identified many that directly recited /referenced the poem as part of the marketing pitch- Union Bank of Switzerland (2008), Ford/New Zealand (2009), Apple Imac (2011), Playstation (2016), Chevrolet (2016) and Emirates (2016). One can even find an online game about enduring life’s surprises called Road Not Taken.
In 1998, US Laureate Robert Pinsky’s The Favorite Poem Project found our nation voted The Road Not Taken as their favorite poem. Unbelievably this was based on the input of 18,000 Americans, ages 5 to 97 from every state, occupation, and educational background. This survey was 35 years after Frost’s death and 85 years after the poem was first published- truly an amazing tribute to the poem’s diverse appeal. (14)
On the 100th anniversary of its first publication in Atlantic Monthly, The Road Not Taken was celebrated including a discussion on National Public Radio, an article on Smithsonian.com, Penguin’s 100th Anniversary Edition of Frost’s Poems, and a book (Road Not Taken by David Orr) that provided a deep dive analysis of the poem.
A character in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” even comments on poem’s famous lines: “So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, s–t just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.” (6).
The poem is still engaging in universal ways, from the ease of the words, the simplicity of the messages, the inspiration to the human spirit, and the appeal to our uniquely American belief in choice. The ‘misinterpretation’ of the poem, now well documented, does not diminish the positive impact that many still attribute to the work; it is likely there will continue to be posters, middle school English discussions, and valedictorian speeches that focus on the exact points Frost never intended to make.
The disruption of the status quo that fuels today’s world, amplified by the exponential growth and application of technology is a far cry from the world Frost experienced when this work completed. We are looking for the next big thing to transform our lives which is closer to the “road never travelled”. We have seen in just a few generations that our lives have been completely changed by individuals who have taken a radically different direction from conventional thinking- Gates, Zuckerberg, and Musk to name a few. To grab the next generation’s attention, Frost’s poem needs some modernization- perhaps an interactive version that explores and trail blazes fantasy worlds versus hunting for a slightly travelled road, leading the traveller on the journey that, in the end makes all the difference (in his final score?). For good measure perhaps flashing subliminal messages that ensure Frost’s true intent is not lost on the future generation.