‘Take the road less travelled’ is the stuff of a thousand graduation ceremonies and school assemblies, a neat poetic expression of the idea that sometimes we shouldn’t follow the path that others have trod but be brave enough to make the unconventional choice.
The idea comes from Robert Frost’s famous poem:
The Road Not Taken
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 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.
On first reading, this seems straightforward enough. The speaker recalls a time when he came to a fork in the road he was travelling in a wood. Faced with two roads, he couldn’t decide which one to take but, after some hesitation, he opted for the ‘one less traveled by’. That, we are told, has made ‘all the difference’.
Most people see this as a recommendation to take this particular road and use it as the starting point for those graduation speeches and school assemblies.
There are three things about the poem, though, that I don’t quite get and that leave me thinking that Frost can’t intend the matter of choice to be that simple.
The first thing I don’t get about the poem is what the ‘difference’ is that this choice has made. While most see it as a difference for the better, it can also, surely, be seen as a difference for the worse. The speaker will be telling this ‘with a sigh’, but sighs can be of regret as well as relief. Does that dash after ‘I’ in line 18 indicate emphatic repetition or hesitant uncertainty? Is the speaker expressing pride and relief, or is he expressing disappointment?
The second thing I don’t get is whether there really was any difference between the paths. The one he took is described as ‘less traveled’. It was ‘grassy and wanted wear’, and yet we are also told that there wasn’t really much difference between them, that they were equally untrodden – ‘the passing there/Had worn them really about the same’.
And the most significant thing I don’t get about the poem is the title. Does ‘The Road Not Taken’ refer to the road he took, the one ‘less traveled by’ and the one that fewer have chosen to take? Or does it refer to the road the speaker chose not to take, the one he kept for another day, even though he knew it was unlikely he would return to take it? In other words, is he preoccupied about the road he did take or the road he didn’t take?
So, it’s not as simple as most like to make it. Was there really any difference between the roads? Which is the road referred to in the title, the road which really concerns him? And can we be absolutely sure that things have turned out well?
However we see it, this poem is clearly about the choices we make, but it seems to me as much about the retrospective spin and justification we like to put on them as it is about any simple imperative to take ‘the road less traveled’. Why else would the speaker feel the need to ‘tell’ this tale far into the future? It could be because the choice might have had far-reaching consequences, but it could also be because he thinks he will feel the need to tell it, to explain himself, to justify the way he has got from A to B. That is why he won’t simply ‘tell’ it – he will ‘be telling’ it as if it is something he needs to repeat endlessly to himself and others as he comes to terms with what he did when faced with the choice.