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;
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 traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
I love this poem. I’m not a big poetry reader, but this is one of my all time favorites. Perhaps yours as well, as it is very, very well known…
The metaphor is simply compelling. We can all relate with the core dilemma of choosing among different paths, without really knowing where each will ultimately take us…
I think that, with the beautiful construction of the verse, rhyme, and sentiment, Robert Frost was surely a genius. Or at least that this particular work of art was a work of genius.
And that was before I read an interpretation that shattered what I believed this poem was about.
The central message of the poem is about being true to yourself, and living your life as you would choose, and not necessarily following in the footsteps of others. Go your own way. Choose the way less traveled by. It will make all the difference.
Now that sentiment, clearly, is pretty awesome. It sends tingles up the spine … it is empowering and energizing while also being fraught with mystery and provoking apprehension. It is inspirational; it beckons us to be who we are, who we can really become.
But that’s not what the poem’s about.
Walk with me …
There was never a differentiated choice presented here! There wasn’t one heavily traveled path and another that was less traveled by…
The passing there / Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.
So, while there was a choice to be made regarding which path to take, there really was no readily apparent difference between them.
Furthermore, because “way leads on to way” (oh my god isn’t that verse simply beautiful?) there is the realization that once we make a choice, we will never know what the other choice might have meant for us…
So how can he say he took the road less traveled by and “that has made all the difference”?
He made that up!
More accurately, he was predicting that he would make that up when he would eventually be telling his story…
I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.
This is far from being about self-actualization and appreciating the immense satisfaction and reward of going our own way.
It is about our propensity to rationalize.
You might feel right now like rejecting that interpretation out of hand. It is shocking; it shocked me.
But I think it is spot on.
Let me quote my source directly in support of this astounding interpretation —
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. 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.
Yowsa. Are you kidding me? That is brilliant. Genius.
And you think just a wee bit relevant for you and me?
I’ve always wondered why the poem was entitled “The Road Not Taken” instead of “The Road Less Traveled” …
Because it’s not really about the specialness of the road we took. It’s also not about the road we didn’t take!
What it really is about is our psychological reconciliation of the remorse that we imagine when we wonder about that other road; the one we didn’t take; the experiences we didn’t have; the success we could have attained…
It’s like we have to feel good about ourselves; so our life-choices, whatever they were and however we chose and whatever the result, must be re scripted in terms that project that we were in control, that we had full knowledge and that we made great choices and that we are responsible and isn’t that a wonderful thing.
But here’s the real deal: We can’t possibly know which path is our path before we choose it.
Your path is the one you choose. Simple as that.
And way leads on to way.
By choosing a path, you make it your own.
That makes all the difference!
My commentary draws from an interpretation here.