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The Road Not Taken

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ad not takenThe Road Not Taken”

Complete Text
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; 5

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, 10

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. 15

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. 20
Summary
The speaker stands in the woods, considering a fork in the road. Both ways are equally worn and equally overlaid with un-trodden leaves. The speaker chooses one, telling himself that he will take the other another day. Yet he knows it is unlikely that he will have the opportunity to do so. And he admits that someday in the future he will recreate the scene with a slight twist: He will claim that he took the less-traveled road.
Form
“The Road Not Taken” consists of four stanzas of five lines. The rhyme scheme is ABAAB; the rhymes are strict and masculine, with the notable exception of the last line (we do not usually stress the -ence of difference). There are four stressed syllables per line, varying on an iambic tetrameter base.
Commentary
This has got to be among the best-known, most-often-misunderstood poems on the planet. Several generations of careless readers have turned it into a piece of Hallmark happy-graduation-son, seize-the-future puffery. Cursed with a perfect marriage of form and content, arresting phrase wrought from simple words, and resonant metaphor, it seems as if “The Road Not Taken” gets memorized without really being read. For this it has died the cliché’s un-death of trivial immortality.
But you yourself can resurrect it from zombie-hood by reading it—not with imagination, even, but simply with accuracy. Of the two roads the speaker says “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” In fact, both roads “that morning lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Meaning: Neither of the roads is less traveled by. These are the facts; we cannot justifiably ignore the reverberations they send through the easy aphorisms of the last two stanzas.
One of the attractions of the poem is its archetypal dilemma, one that we instantly recognize because each of us encounters it innumerable times, both literally and figuratively. Paths in the woods and forks in roads are ancient and deep-seated metaphors for the lifeline, its crises and decisions. Identical forks, in particular, symbolize for us the nexus of free will and fate: We are free to choose, but we do not really know beforehand what we are choosing between. Our route is, thus, determined by an accretion of choice and chance, and it is impossible to separate the two.
This poem does not advise. It does not say, “When you come to a fork in the road, study the footprints and take the road less traveled by” (or even, as Yogi Berra enigmatically quipped, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”). Frost’s focus is more complicated. First, there is no less-traveled road in this poem; it isn’t even an option. Next, the poem seems more concerned with the question of how the concrete present (yellow woods, grassy roads covered in fallen leaves) will look from a future vantage point.
The ironic tone is inescapable: “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” The speaker anticipates his own future insincerity—his need, later on in life, to rearrange the facts and inject a dose of Lone Ranger into the account. He knows that he will be inaccurate, at best, or hypocritical, at worst, when he holds his life up as an example. In fact, he predicts that his future self will betray this moment of decision as if the betrayal were inevitable. This realization is ironic and poignantly pathetic. But the “sigh” is critical. The speaker will not, in his old age, merely gather the youth about him and say, “Do what I did, kiddies. I stuck to my guns, took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Rather, he may say this, but he will sigh first; for he won’t believe it himself. Somewhere in the back of his mind will remain the image of yellow woods and two equally leafy paths.
Ironic as it is, this is also a poem infused with the anticipation of remorse. Its title is not “The Road Less Traveled” but “The Road Not Taken.” Even as he makes a choice (a choice he is forced to make if does not want to stand forever in the woods, one for which he has no real guide or definitive basis for decision-making), the speaker knows that he will second-guess himself somewhere down the line—or at the very least he will wonder at what is irrevocably lost: the impossible, unknowable Other Path. But the nature of the decision is such that there is no Right Path—just the chosen path and the other path. What are sighed for ages and ages hence are not so much the wrong decisions as the moments of decision themselves—moments that, one atop the other, mark the passing of a life. This is the more primal strain of remorse.
Thus, to add a further level of irony, the theme of the poem may, after all, be “seize the day.” But a more nuanced carpe diem, if you please.
Born on March 26, 1874, Robert Frost spent his first 40 years as an unknown. He exploded on the scene after returning from England at the beginning of WWI. Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and a special guest at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Frost became a poetic force and the unofficial "poet laureate" of the United States. He died of complications from prostate surgery on January 29, 1963.
Early Years
Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874 in San Francisco, California. He spent the first 12 years of his life there, until his father, William Prescott Frost Jr., died of tuberculosis. Following his father's passing, Frost moved with his mother and sister Jeanie to the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. They moved in with his grandparents, and Frost attended Lawrence High School, where he met his future love and wife, Elinor White, his co-valedictorian.
After his high school graduation in 1892, Frost attended Dartmouth University for several months, returning home to work a slew of unfulfilling jobs. In 1894, he had his first poem, "My Butterfly: an Elegy," published in The Independent, a weekly literary journal based in New York City. With this success, Frost proposed to Elinor, who was attending St. Lawrence University. She turned him down because she first wanted to finish school. Frost then decided to leave on a trip to Virginia, and when he returned, he proposed again. By then, Elinor had graduated from college, and she accepted. They married on December 19, 1895, and had their first child, Elliot, in 1896.
Beginning in 1897, Frost attended Harvard University, but had to drop out after two years due to health concerns. He returned to Lawrence to join his wife, who was now pregnant with their second child, Lesley, who suffered from mental illness. In 1900, Frost moved with his wife and children to a farm in New Hampshire—property that Frost's grandfather had purchased for them—and they attempted to make a life on it for the next 12 years. Though it was a fruitful time for Frost's writing, it was a difficult period in his personal life.
Elinor gave birth to four more children, Carol (1902); Irma (1903), who later developed mental illness; Marjorie (1905); and Elinor (1907), and two of the Frost children died. Elliot died of cholera in 1900, and Elinor died of complications from birth just weeks after she was born. Additionally, during that time, Frost and Elinor tried several endeavors, including poultry farming, all of which were fairly unsuccessful.
Despite such challenges, it was during this time that Frost acclimated himself to rural life. In fact, he grew to depict it quite well, and began setting many poems in the countryside. While two of these, "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," would be published in 1906, he could not find any publishers who were willing to underwrite his other poems.
Public Recognition for Poetry
In 1912, Frost and Elinor decided to sell the farm in New Hampshire and move the family to England, where more publishers would be willing to take a chance on new poets, they believed. Within just a few months, Frost, now 38, found a publisher who would publish his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, followed by North of Boston a year later. It was at this time that Frost met Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two men who would affect his life in significant ways.
Pound and Thomas were the first to review his work in a favorable light, as well as provide significant encouragement. Frost credited Thomas's long walks over the English landscape as the inspiration for one of his most famous poems, "The Road Not Taken." Apparently, Thomas's indecision and regret regarding what path to take inspired Frost's work. The time Frost spent in England was one of the most significant periods in his life, but it was short-lived. WWI broke out in 1914, and Frost and Elinor returned to America early in 1915.
When Frost arrived back home, his reputation had preceded him, and he was well-received by the publishing world. His publisher, Henry Holt, who would remain with him for the rest of his life, had purchased all of the copies of North of Boston, and in 1916, he published Frost's Mountain Interval, a collection of other works that he created while in England, including a tribute to Thomas. Publishers such as the Atlantic Monthly, who had turned Frost down when he submitted work earlier, came calling. Frost famously sent theMonthly the same poems that they had rejected before his stay in England.
In 1916, Frost and Elinor settled down on a farm that they purchased in Franconia, New Hampshire. There, Frost began a long career as a teacher at several colleges, reciting poetry to eager crowds and writing all the while. He taught at Dartmouth and the University of Michigan at various times, but his longest stint was at Amherst College, where he taught on and off for significant periods for more than 45 years, and where the main library is now named in his honor. He also spent almost every summer and fall at Middlebury College, teaching English on its campus in Ripton, Vermont.
Frost received more than 40 honorary degrees during his lifetime. In 1924, he received his first of four Pulitzer Prizes for his book New Hampshire. He would subsequently win his other Pulitzers for Collected Poems (1931),Further Range (1937) and A Witness Tree (1943).
Literary Legacy
In the late 1950s, Frost, along with Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, championed the release of his old acquaintance Ezra Pound, who was being held in a federal mental hospital for treason. Pound was released in 1958, after indictments were dropped. In 1962, Frost visited the Soviet Union on a goodwill tour. His announcement that Americans are "too liberal to fight," when he visited the Soviet Premier Khrushchev, caused a lot of grief. That same year, Congress awarded Frost the Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1961, at the age of 86, Frost was honored when asked to write and recite a poem for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. His sight now failing, he was not able to see the words in the sunlight and substituted the reading of one of his poems, "The Gift Outright," which he had committed to memory. On January 29, 1963, Frost died from complications related to prostate surgery. He was survived by two of his daughters, Lesley and Irma, and his ashes are interred in a family plot in Bennington, Vermont.…...

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