Most people reading Robert Frost’s poetry get so caught up in the beautiful imagery of the Vermont landscape that they forget to pay attention to the deep meaning he typically embedded within his poems. An example of this is the mistaken concept by many people that Frost is recommending they take the road less traveled by as a means of living an independent and happy lifestyle. Pulling from the conceptual metaphor that life is a journey, this essentially translates to the concept that individuals should strive to follow their own path in life rather than attempting to follow the paths that have been mapped out for them by others. It isn’t bad advice, but it isn’t exactly what Frost had in mind when he wrote it. According to Larry Finger (1978), he once told an audience, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky” when referring to “The Road Not Taken.” While the conceptual metaphor still applies, a close reading of the textual cues of the poem indicate that Frost is not recommending which road should be selected, only providing a warning that, once selected, it is impossible to know what might have been missed on the other way.
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The conceptual metaphor that links ‘life’ with ‘journey’ is culturally ingrained in nearly every Western-born individual. Generally speaking, a conceptual metaphor is defined as a metaphor “that is so basic in the way people think about something that they fail to perceive that it is a metaphor” (“Conceptual Metaphor”, 2007). It is an idea that is brought forward by Lakoff and Johnson that illustrates that this connection is made at such a deep level that it cannot be avoided. “Lakoff and Johnson revealed, through theoretical argument supported by empirical investigation, the centrality of metaphor to thought exemplified in the ubiquity of metaphorical forms in everyday, conventional language” (Bailey, 2003). In other words, we are only able to discuss our ideas and beliefs with others through the use of the conceptual metaphor, which requires a shared language and cultural base and serves as a means by which we define ourselves. “Accordingly, we talk about things the way we conceive of them, and this is fashioned through and grounded in experience and culture: our basic conceptual system ‘is fundamentally metaphoric in nature’” (Bailey, 2003). Thus, when Frost discusses taking a walk in the woods and coming to a place where a choice must be made, the reader has already made the jump, deep within their mind, that this poem must have something to say about life. However, for most, the beautiful scenery the poem conjures up – the ‘yellow wood’, the ‘undergrowth’, the ‘grassy’ way and the fresh leaves that ‘wanted wear’ – causes them to pause here and reflect that Frost himself took the road ‘less traveled by’, assuming he is recommending this as the best course of action for everyone.
A close reading of the poem reveals that this is merely a trick of the light, so to speak. While the poem is making a connection between Frost’s walks in the woods and the journey through life, the connection he was making was quite different from prescribing a particular path to follow. As has been indicated, “most people seem to interpret this poem as a tribute to the road less traveled, as an endorsement of the decision to plow new ground, to explore new territory, to try or to create something new” (Bellah, 2004). While this interpretation has plenty of validity to it, it is not necessarily supported by the text any more than Frost’s comment about the poem being tricky serves to increase confidence that there is only one valid interpretation of the poem. As Bellah (2004) points out, the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken” rather than “The Road Less Taken” (emphasis added), which provides the first clue as to the author’s original intentions and a different reading of the poem. By analyzing the poem through each of its four stanzas, one can begin to trace the linguistic tools used by the author to make his meaning clear.
The first stanza of the poem establishes the setting and the mood of the poem. It opens with the line “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” This immediately places the reader within an idyllic, timeless, peaceful place. Frost is able to do this by using words such as ‘diverge’, which suggests leisure time and a lack of concern as people only allow themselves to ‘diverge’ from their purpose when they haven’t any pressing purposes on their schedule. The wood he is in is yellow, which is a color most often associated in the Western culture with happiness, friendship and pleasant sunshine, something that is most welcome in Vermont during the spring or fall when the leaves on the trees are more likely to be described as yellow. At the same time, Frost establishes that this is not a frightening wood as a yellow wood does not contain any shadows or fearsome places within its depths, only deeper and perhaps friendlier yellows. Having warmly welcomed his readers into his world, he confides he is “sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler”. This indicates that both roads before him are equally appealing and equally unknown. Rather than pausing to determine which road he’s going to take, he instead seems to be wishing he could take both roads at the same time and remember all of the experiences of both. He “looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth”, again illustrating he has plenty of time to spare and that he has found nothing frightening down the somewhat overgrown path in this first direction.
The second stanza opens with the second path, the one Frost indicates he elected to take, which was “just as fair”. For Frost, however, this second path has the ‘better claim’ on him because it appears for a moment to not have been as well traveled as the first. He suggests this idea by saying that the second path ‘wanted wear’ or needed someone to walk on it more often to reclaim it from the grasses that were starting to crowd over it. At the same time, while the first path was described as having undergrowth that prevented a longer view, this second path is described as grassy, indicating that perhaps it is more in the sun with all the psychological appeal that connotes and also perhaps affords a longer view of what lies ahead. However, Frost admits that despite their differences, both paths were equally ambiguous as he would never know what lie down either one of them until he journeyed along them. In this respect, they were identical, “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same”.
The idea that the paths are equal is explicitly stated in the third stanza, as is the concept that once the choice has been made, there is no recapturing the other option, bringing the poem into greater contextual meaning. In describing the paths, Frost says that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black”, refuting claims that one path before him was, in reality, traveled more frequently as he is the first to step on either one today. Having successfully navigated the discussion around to the conceptual metaphor of life equals a journey, Frost now points out one of the common fallacies individuals tell themselves as they pass through life, “I kept the first for another day”. Making a life application, this is similar to the hard life choices people must make as they mature, such as whether to pursue a career or a family. Often, these are mutually exclusive pursuits and one is subjugated under the other with the internal promise that the other will be followed sometime in the future. But Frost says, “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back”, illustrating how difficult this step is and emphasizing the idea that while one may choose to follow a career later, that career will not be the same road as the one met back in the yellow wood that day before deciding to have a family first.
This realization reached in the third stanza is only fully revealed in the fourth stanza as Frost, still standing at the crossroads, projects his thoughts into the future when thinking back on this decision, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence”. This opening to the stanza invokes a sense of the sadly nostalgic, as if the speaker will be still regretting the fact that they could not experience both roads at once. Regardless of where he ends up, which is as unknown as where he would have ended up had he taken the other road indicated by the use of the word ‘somewhere’, this decision will have greatly impacted the definition of this somewhere while the definition of the other somewhere will forever be lost. While he might actually prefer where he ends up on this path to where he would have ended up on the other path, he will never know the difference, therefore he will never know whether his sigh is in satisfaction or in regret. However, in the end, “I took the road less traveled by / And that has made all the difference”. The word focused on here is typically ‘difference’, usually interpreted to indicate that it is a positive difference and it was Frost’s decision to take the less traveled road that brought about positive influences into his life. However, Frost seems to be focusing on the word ‘I’, meaning he has made his decision as to which road was the better road for him. While he will never know if he was right or wrong, his decision has ‘made all the difference’, he has lived his life according to the decisions he has made.
Thus, in the end, the underlying message seems to be nearly the same, that individuals should make choices in their lives based on their own paths and their own inclinations because the path selected often ‘leads to way’ by pointing to new pursuits in life. Thus, it is almost never possible to turn back and try that other path in the woods. “Frost’s poem reminds us that one rarely returns to roads not taken. That’s why … it’s so dangerous to keep putting things off that we consider truly important. Temporary choices have a way of becoming permanent ones, and today’s procrastinations are tomorrow’s regrets” (Bellah, 2004). At the same time, he illustrates the longing more than one of his reader’s have shared, the longing that one could be both career hotshot and bask in the glow of family at one and the same time or combine any number of mutually exclusive choices in life – perhaps the backpacking trip across Europe for two years or the college education. “Like it or not, we can’t take all the roads we want to in life. Frost’s words also remind us that we really are one traveler, and trying to choose everything in life will leave us just as empty as choosing the wrong thing. We can’t keep changing roads and expect to reach the end of any of them. Ultimately, over-commitment arrives at the same destination as procrastination: at the road not taken” (Bellah, 2004). While Frost’s poem does offer the reader wisdom for life, as has been shown in this analysis, the wisdom offered is much deeper than a simple pointing of the way.
Bailey, Richard. “Conceptual Metaphor, Language, Literature and Pedagogy.” Journal of Language and Learning. Vol. 1, N. 2, (2003).
Bellah, Mike. “The Road Not Taken.” The Best Years. (2004). Web.
“Conceptual Metaphor.” Open Politics. (2007). Web.
Finger, Larry L. “Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: A 1925 Letter Come to Light.” American Literature. Vol. 50, N. 3, (November 1978): 478-489.
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. Louis Untermeyer. New York: Washington Square Press, 1971: 223.