It’s not less travelled
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is probably one of the best known poems of the 20th century, but for entirely the wrong reason. I teach it nearly every semester in my Interpretation of Poetry classes, not so much because I enjoy it, but because I’m tired of hearing people invoke the final three lines as though they’re conveying some statement about the need to explore one’s own path in life. It seems like when I ask my students if they’ve covered this poem–and they nearly all have, in high school–that’s the reading their teacher thrust upon them. Well, I’m tired of it, and I’m taking a stand.
The problem is that too many readers hit those last three lines like an awkward kid on roller skates hits the wall, and they never look beyond them.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
What a ponderous close, if that’s all you take away from the poem. But it’s what comes before that gives that close a cruel twist.
Frost spends most of the poem pointing out that the path his speaker chose wasn’t less travelled.
Then took the other, as just as fair,…
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.(6, 9-12)
There’s no difference in the roads, at least not that the speaker can make out. And that’s the point. If we take this poem as a discussion of life choices, which is how it’s most often read, then what Frost is really saying is that we don’t know how our choices will play out. Assuming we’re at a binary life choice (also a mythical situation, most of the time), we can only see so far down the roads we have to choose from, “to where [they bend] in the undergrowth,” you might say. Beyond that, we’re blind. We don’t know how those decisions will affect us in the long run.
So why does Frost’s speaker tell this story “with a sigh / ages and ages hence”? Because he’s being bugged by people to tell them the secret of his success, I presume, to answer the question “how did you wind up here?” The people asking him don’t want to hear something boring like “I just put one foot after another;” they want something profound. So the speaker gives them “I took the one less travelled by.” It’s a lie, but it’s a lie they want. The fact that the options pretty much look all the same just whizzes over their heads.