We have all heard this poem by Robert Frost. “I took the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference.” A triumphant call to action to go against the flow, to be an individual, to get off the beaten path, and follow your dreams!
I’m here to tell you (or remind you), that this is bullshit.
That is not what this poem is about. It is about choices and indecision and unknown consequences and never getting a do-over on the choices we make. Once we choose a path, it’s the road not taken that is a mystery, sometimes even a regret, yet we spend our lives convincing ourselves and others that we made our arbitrary choices with deliberate intention, and the outcome was clear from the beginning based on the condition of the path.
Let’s re-read this poem with a new perspective. We’ll also see that this change does not diminish the value of the story, but instead puts a human perspective on a task we must endure daily. While the answers are not always clear in the moment, it’s in hindsight that we find the true meaning and purpose of our decisions.
The Road Not Taken
BY ROBERT FROST
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;
Here we come to our choice. The writer stands paralyzed trying to peer into the future and down the path.
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,
Even though we always thought one of these paths was less traveled, the writer here can’t really make up his mind. He ultimately tells us here that both are about equally worn.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
No one was there to guide the writer or give him any clarity about his choice.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Finally, a decision, but with instant regret for once the choice is made, you can never go back to that fork again.
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.
We own our choices and they become part of our story. Whether we made them on a whim or with painstaking care, we convince ourselves that it was always the right choice, for we can never go back to the road not taken….
Special thanks to Katherine Robinson, at the Poetry Foundation who provided an outstanding interpretation of this poem after my flawed historical recollection of the poem was not lining up with what I was reading.