I remember The Road Not Taken as a poem I had to memorize while at school. I don’t know if rote memorization is still a favored technique in the Irish education system, but it was when I was in primary and secondary school. The lugubrious task of memorizing might explain my poor grasp of literature and poetry.
My appreciation of English literature has always been somewhat lacking. Great works by masterful authors and poets have always left me somewhat mystified. I readily admit to being someone who needs to have the meaning of a great work of fiction or poetry explained to me (usually very slowly) before I can grasp its significance.
It was only a couple of years ago when I came across an explanation of Frost’s meaning behind The Road Not Taken. I had always assumed that it was about regret for opportunities missed, the recognition of what could have, and perhaps, should have been, and an encouragement to others to learn from the poet’s regret and to take risks in life and follow the road less travelled. I had even viewed the idea of taking a less travelled road as a metaphor for a priestly vocation.
However, the real meaning seems to be something altogether different. At its heart, The Road Not Taken is a poem about the reality of choice in human life and the meaning with which we subsequently imbue those choices.
One of the interesting aspects of the poem is that Frost relates that the roads the traveler is faced with are essentially equal in terms of how much they are travelled. The perception of one road being less travelled than another is within the mind of the traveler, but, as the Frost describes:
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.
The difference between the roads seems to be based on what the traveler can see of where each path leads. Specifically, of the road not taken, the traveler remarks that:
long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
David C. Ward comments that the traveler may have been intimidated by the slightly ominous way the road disappears into the undergrowth.
Frost ends the poem by imbuing the choice of the traveler with significance:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As noted above, the roads are equally worn, and Frost’s language thus becomes a way of communicating how we interpret our own history, how we see significance in hindsight.
The Road Not Taken is about the choices we make in life. Some, such as Ward and perhaps even Frost himself, see these choices as ultimately meaningless, and it is only in hindsight that we reinterpret them and imbue them with undeserved meaning. However, I think it is also possible to speculate that The Road Not Taken captures the idea that meaning unfolds over time, and that each path we choose contributes to a global meaning in the context of an individual life which can only be appreciated in hindsight.