#16: The Road Not Taken


#16: The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Do you review your life? Do you reflect on your choices – on your choice of partner, of work, of friendships? How successful they have been? How unsuccessful, perhaps? This is not easy territory, and in this poem Robert Frost travels it, remorselessly truthful.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveller, 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 travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

This poem is a metaphor of life, our life and how we live it. It is the third poem we have considered on journeys pertaining to life. Ithaka by CP Cavafy advocated focus on the journey rather than the destination, Mary Oliver advised saving only one life, yours. Robert Frost goes directly to whatever life you lead depends on a series of choices. He allows no room for good fortune – neither in birth nor station, nor in meeting angels or villains, nor in one’s disposition to fate.

It is plain and simple, feet on the ground, straightforward. Wherever I am, whatever I am, whoever I am, I am responsible for that outcome. No-one else. This is so personal I am starting to sweat as I write.

There is a wistfulness about the language. The phrases ‘Sorry I could not travel both’, and ‘…shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence’ perhaps reflect a sadness that things do not quite work out as expected, as hoped. Yes, that’s the rub, perhaps, I did not do as well as I expected or hoped to do, and now there is no going back.

So, what do I do now? How do I react? Burst into tears? Metaphorically kick the dog? No, there are (still) two roads to choose, two ways of thinking and being. You see…it never stops! And the choice is usually not binary! There are plenty of options.

Nor are the choices easy. Although Frost thinks he likes the look of one of the roads more than the other, he admits that ‘… the passing there/Had worn them really about the same’. How do you choose the route forward? CP Cavafy in Ithaka might say it doesn’t matter, just enjoy the journey, learn from it, and chill. But Frost takes a different approach, he says taking the road less travelled by ‘makes all the difference’. So, is the less travelled option better? Oh, the poet deliberately gives us no advice on whether the difference is something better or worse. 

The tack of both Cavafy and Frost strike me as having truth. Engage the moment, all the moments as they pass by, learn and do not expect too much (Ithaka). Strive for your objective, choose correctly, or as best you can (Road Not Taken).

Do you notice the shift in the tense of the verbs as the poem progresses? Frost is reciting his poem at the end of verse three. All the verbs in the first three verses are past tense. The tense in the first lines of verse four is future tense, ‘I shall be telling this story and sighing’. And from that future perspective Frost knows he will have chosen the road less travelled by, and this will have made all the difference. 

In other words, he is admitting to his non-conformist personality, to his contrarian choices, in the knowledge that this makes all the difference. For him. His choice mechanism. Not yours or mine, necessarily. We can choose how we choose. The less travelled road may not make a difference for you. It’s your choice. Just make it – and make the best of it.

A final thought. Have you ever ‘lost big’ on a road not taken? Something really did not work out? Can you remember how you reacted? I have a feeling that if one can bounce back, be resilient, maintain one’s enthusiasm, then one is more likely to be presented with other ‘roads to take’ in the future. In other words, one’s future success depends on how one dealt with one’s past failures. 

Ian Widdop

Johannesburg

September 23, 2019

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3 Responses

  1. Jan Jones.
    | Reply

    Enjoyed reading this one Ian.

  2. Jamie
    | Reply

    So true … as I know only too well!

  3. Julian Sturgeon
    | Reply

    Such a wise poem. Such a lovely contrarian. This poem has often served to comfort me when I consider the other road I might have taken. And as you point out, it never ends.

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