In “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, the first stanza reads as follows:

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;

For some reason I recollected the third line as “And being one traveler”, in which case the meaning would be that because he was one traveler, and therefore could not travel both paths, the narrator then stood, looked, etc.

However, if the word is actual “be” that does not seem to be a valid grammatical structure to express that meaning (unless the grammar style has changed in the last hundred years).

An alternative meaning that fits with the word “be” would be to read that phrase as part of the previous phrase, i.e. “I could not travel both and (still) be one traveler. (Kind of like the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”.)

But if that is the meaning, how are we to read the next part? “Long I stood” seems awkward as the beginning of a new idea (“Long I stood and looked down one as far as I could”).

So what is the best way to interpret the phrase “be one traveler” in this context?

3 Answers 3


It's a complex predicate.

I could not travel both and be one traveler

which could be broken down into

I could not travel both


I could not be one traveler

The second of which is grammatical if extremely odd, but the intent is that since he is one traveler, he must take one road. Two travelers could each take one, but he can not be two travelers.

long I stood

This is a poetic inversion, meaning

I stood long

indicating the time spent considering.


To add to Mary's answer, the full clause in question is:

... 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;

"I could not travel both and be one traveler" is a subordinate clause, providing the reason why the speaker was sorry. "Sorry... traveler" forms a complex adjectival phrase, which applies to the subject of the main clause, "I." The speaker was sorry (that he could not travel both roads and still be one traveler), and therefore he stood for a long time and looked down one road instead of proceeding.

This adjective-applied-to-the-subject structure is perhaps a bit unusual today, but not unheard of. Here's an example from the New International Version of the Bible1:

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
- Acts 2:12, NIV

What makes it hard to follow in "The Road Not Taken" is the complexity of the adjectival phrase, which comprises most of two lines and contains a subordinate clause.

1This wording choice is at least as old as the 1984 version, but the 2011 revision didn't see fit to change it.


I’ll try to answer with an analogy.

Imagine that the two roads are 1) answering this question, and 2) obeying the posted rule of avoiding making statements based on opinion, and that the one traveler is me.

Unless I’m Frost himself (I’m not), I can’t go down those two roads. Frost is the only one who knows exactly what he meant by that line - he’s the only one who can give an authoritative non-opinion based answer about exactly what it means.

And from a wider view, as a limited human traveler, I can’t know exactly how the simplistic complexity of reality’s existential constraints (that are referenced by that line) operate, and what the ultimate consequences of those constraints are. The greater information measures the lesser information, not the other way around. Reality subsumes me, not the other way around.

I can’t both answer the question and not give my opinion. I can’t travel both of those two roads AND be me.

And I’m sorry about that. I would really like to know exactly what Frost meant. I would really like to know exactly how reality’s constraints work. I would really like to be able to give you an authoritative non-opinion based answer.

So I thought about it for a while, and then I chose the road of answering the question, rather than the road of avoiding giving my opinion.

That’s just what humans do.

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