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In Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" (which you can read online), the narrator gives two contradictory reasons for taking a particular fork in the road.

At the beginning of the poem, the narrator emphasizes that both roads are essentially equal. The narrator specifically states that both roads were traveled about equally, i.e. "Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same". And the narrator also describes the roads as being more or less equal, i.e. "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

What's confusing is that, at the end of the poem, the narrator contradicts all available evidence and states that "I took the [road] less traveled by."

What's going on here?

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    It's not necessarily a contradiction. The passing has worn them about the same, but one of them is actually less travelled by (despite that not being visible to the eye). – Rand al'Thor Jan 21 '17 at 21:24
  • @Randal'Thor that makes no sense. Not that the roads are described as being equal, i.e. "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." All the evidence points to the roads being equally traveled. It's only after the narrator chooses a path that they describe the path as being less traveled. – user111 Jan 21 '17 at 21:29
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    Yes, because after choosing the path they discover, further along the way, that it's less travelled. – Rand al'Thor Jan 21 '17 at 21:30
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+50

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Quotes have a way of taking on a life of their own. These lines, the last three lines of Frost's The Road Not Taken, have been endlessly quoted by many people: as epigraphs in their books, on their personal web pages, and so on. And why not? They express an idea that is almost heroic: of doing the unconventional thing, being a maverick rather a conformist, of the virtue of individualism that has always resonated in America, of the satisfaction (or regret!) that your choice ended up making a difference.

To use language is to give expression to ideas; language begins to turn into poetry when the ideas are striking, or the form is striking, or both. Here we have a master poet who has cloaked this idea in creative language, and there are all sorts of subtle things that make the words memorable and charming. (The rhyme, the repetition of the “I”, …) So those who wish to “borrow” the language of a poet to express this idea about themselves are certainly not doing anything “wrong”.

In the context of the poem, though, it appears that the author may have intended (see questions on ) something else (or something more), which becomes apparent if we read the poem closely, in its entirety and in order. So let's do that:


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

In the very first line the author sets the context quickly: here he is, faced with two roads in a wood. Of course, being a single person he can't travel both (what a delightfully absurd idea!), so he's having to make up his mind. This he does:

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;

He's considered one road and then decided to take the other one, which (“as just as fair”) is very similar. Why? Simply because it appears “perhaps” better, after looking at its grass and feeling that it needs walking on. Immediately after making this decision on such flimsy grounds though, he is aware that:

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.

So, then again (“Though as for that”), the difference is not such a big one, possibly even non-existent. Both roads are good; perhaps the one he didn't take is good too. (You could call this contradiction, but it's just that on closer examination the difference has vanished. And whenever we list pros-and-cons of any choice, taking one side of the matter and then the other, we are, in a sense, contradicting ourselves.) So there is already a fear of having picked the wrong one, which is assuaged with:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

“The next time I'm here, I'll take the other one” is what he tells himself, knowing fully well that there may not be a next time. What's more likely to happen is something else (I've added the quotation marks for clarity):

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.”

Remember the original reason he picked the second road, because it was “perhaps” better, as it was “grassy and wanted wear”? The reason which, on closer examination, turned out to be flimsy as the difference was negligible? No matter; he's going to stick to that story. Years later, at parties and to grandchildren, he's going to make the difference seem larger than it was. Exaggerate it, put on an act (“telling this with a sigh”), claim that his decision has always been to take the less-travelled road, and that this has made a difference.


So those who take the last three lines and think that they represent Frost's intention can be said to have “misunderstod” the poem. (See similar comments by David Orr, in video and in text — he's written an entire book called The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong and the excerpt linked is good reading.) It is also telling that many people misremember the poem's title as The Road Less Traveled: Frost may have intended the title The Road Not Taken to be about the road he did not take, but many people who are strongly affected by the last lines seem to have interpreted the poem as being about the road not taken by (many) others: the less-travelled road he did take.

However, (as I said at the beginning of this answer), they are perfectly valid in their understanding of those three lines specifically, which are indeed intended to convey the idea they have. (That's why he's going to say it “ages and ages hence”: because it is really an awesome thing to say!) The poet is fooling around and mocking the utterance of that idea, sure, as is clear from reading the entire poem and as convincingly demonstrated by the historical research in Rand al-Thor's answer, but the poet is also on to something more here.

The metaphorical application of the poem to a scope beyond forest-navigation is obvious, as the experience is universal: we have all been faced with questions like “which subjects should I study?” “Should I stay at my current job or take the new one?”. And we have responded with reasoning like “I will study [X] because it will fulfill my soul” or “I will stay at my current job because career prospects are better”. But people change, the world changes, and this reasoning may turn out to be rubbish. We are left rationalizing the choices we did make, or overstating their significance.

This is life. We are faced with choices; we hesitate and waver; we consider one option and then the other; we pick somewhat randomly for reasons that seem good at the time; we know these reasons don't always hold water; we may tell ourselves we can still try the other one and only sometimes admit to ourselves that the decision may be irrevocable; we later muse/wonder about having taken the other choice (The Road Not Taken); we make peace by telling grand stories about how our choice was the right one (or sorrow by telling how our choice was the bad one). So the last lines may be an act, but the propensity to put on such an act is very real.

Possibly without intending it, Frost has created a masterpiece that succinctly captures all of this in 20 memorable lines (with rhyme and metre), with the images of a “yellow wood” to boot.

Having understood all this about human nature though, one arrives at a maturity that goes back to the point Frost was trying to make to his friend Edward Thomas (again, see Rand al-Thor's answer): no matter which choice we make, we'll go through the same sequence of emotions anyway. It's just two roads in a wood; the choice doesn't matter. Quit agonizing so much, pick one and keep moving.


A couple of comments based on other Frost poems:

  • This is not the only Frost quote that is loved by people even though the context of the poem is against it. Many people attribute “Good fences make good neighbors” to Frost or his poem Mending Wall, even though in the poem the narrator is speaking against someone who utters that proverb mindlessly. (Here too, the distinction between someone who says something and means it, and the poet thinking about the act of saying it.)

  • In a sense, Frost's Fire And Ice is also a similar consideration-reconsideration, which you could call “contradicting himself”: picking one option and then saying the other will do too.

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    I'm accepting this answer, not because it's the only possible answer to this question, but because it's the best answer I've received so far and it's a shame for it to be buried under some of the other answers to this question. If you want to take a stab at answering this question, please feel free to do so. – user111 Jul 22 '17 at 18:09
  • Excellently analyzed. But it can be seen as an eternal poem of an etenal poet on human dilemma which borders on 'could have' or 'would have' , however having no coming back. It's an yearning for what is not. I don't think the poet is narrating so in the party or to grand children.It is ringing through the ages. Still hats off to you. – Barid Baran Acharya Apr 29 '18 at 16:02
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First let's take a quick look at what Robert Frost himself said about this poem:

“One stanza of “The Road Not Taken” was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England. [It] was as found three or four years later, and I couldn’t bear not to finish it. I wasn’t thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way. And so I . . . sent it to him in France, getting the reply, ’What are you trying to do with me?’”

-- Robert Frost (source; emphasis mine)

The man he was referring to was his good friend Edward Thomas. It seems that Frost's intended meaning in writing this poem was to poke fun at those who agonise over inconsequential decisions:

Frost insisted that Thomas was overreacting, and told his friend that he had failed to see that "the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing". But Thomas saw no such fun, and said so bluntly, adding that he doubted anyone would see the fun of the thing without Frost to guide them personally. Frost, in fact, had already discovered as much on reading the poem before a college audience, where it was "taken pretty seriously", he admitted, despite "doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling . . . Mea culpa."

-- (source; emphasis mine)

Let's bear this in mind while examining the poem itself.


The first stanza already establishes that the narrator (based on Edward Thomas) is agonising over the simple decision of which road to choose while out for a stroll in the woods.

The second and third stanzas already introduce contradictions in the narrator's thought processes:

  • And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

    This suggests that the road chosen is less worn than the other - it has a better claim because it "wants wear", thus presumably wants it (in the old-fashioned sense of needing or lacking it, not desiring it) more than the first road.

  • 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.

    Suddenly the narrator is contradicting their earlier statement: the road chosen isn't less worn than the other after all; they're both worn the same amount, and equally covered in untrodden leaves.

The fourth stanza is all about the narrator's regret over their choice. It's clear from the Frost quote above that this regret is not intended to be entirely rational - that the narrator would have felt the same regret regardless of which road they'd chosen. At this point, they go back to thinking the road they chose was less worn, because creating a difference between the two choices (even if it's a fairly meaningless one) enables them to persuade themselves that one was worse than the other.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yeah, sure, mate. It was such an important decision, and you flunked it. Even though you couldn't decide even at the time whether the road you chose was less worn or equally worn as the other, in retrospect you're sure it was less worn and that that's ruined your life. Congrats. </s>


To simplify the analysis, I'm going to rewrite the essential details of the poem in clearer language which makes the moral more obvious. (I'm aware that this may be a controversial thing to do.)

I had to choose what path to take.
Oh! So hard! I couldn't decide.

Let's try this one - it's less trodden.
No, actually, it's equally trodden.
Oh, whatever. I dunno.

Now in the future I can say:
What an idiot! I went wrong,
I picked the path less trodden.

Taking the narrator's frame of mind into consideration, it's not really that much of a contradiction. Whatever differences there are between the two paths are basically irrelevant, and the narrator is making a big deal out of nothing. It doesn't matter whether the chosen path is less worn or not: the point is that the narrator thinks it is when that helps them make their decision, then thinks it isn't because "eh, who cares" (and maybe it actually isn't), then thinks it is again because that enables them to agonise and torture themselves with regret afterwards.

  • This is one possible interpretation of the story, but it's not the only one. (I'm not trying to criticize this answer in any way. I'm just trying to say that we aren't finished yet, and that other people with different opinions about the poem should also take a stab at writing an answer.) – user111 Jan 21 '17 at 22:19
  • Actually, I do have one (minor) complaint about this answer. I'm not sure that you can say that "Frost's intended meaning in writing this poem was to poke fun at those who agonise over inconsequential decisions" on the basis of that one quote, especially since Frost has written other things about this poem that suggest different interpretations. – user111 Jan 21 '17 at 22:25
  • @Hamlet Edited in a new quote from Frost. – Rand al'Thor Jan 21 '17 at 22:35
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    "the narrator is making a big deal out of nothing" seems unnecessary and abusive to me. – VicAche Mar 11 '17 at 16:25
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    @VicAche Well, the argument I'm making in this answer is that the poem can be interpreted as being rude about people, such as the narrator, agonising over minor decisions. From the first section of my answer: "It seems that Frost's intended meaning in writing this poem was to poke fun at those who agonise over inconsequential decisions". – Rand al'Thor Mar 11 '17 at 17:26
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There is no contradiction here. Note the beginning of the last stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The previous stanzas make it clear that, despite the traveller's hesitation, there really was nothing to choose between the roads. It is a meaningless choice and its consequences cannot be known because "way leads on to way" and he is probably not going to have the chance to go back and explore the other path.

But that is not how he is going to tell the story later in life. Later he is going to make the decision seem more bold and adventurous than it really was, and is going to claim that this bold choice made all the difference in his life. The final, and most famous, lines, therefore, are a piece of humbug:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

That is the tale he is planning to tell at parties later in life, but, as the previous lines have made clear, these sentiments are all bosh. There was nothing to choose between the roads and he has no idea if the choice he made made any difference at all.

The problem with the poem seems to be that most of the readers get so caught up in the romance of those last lines that they fail to notice the plain statement that they are a piece of humbug. The words "with a sigh", particularly, emphasize the humbug of the words that follow. Why will he sigh? To make his words seem vaguely tinged with regret. It's an act. It is humbug.

But we can't see it because we want the particular piece of humbug to be true. We want poems to have poetic ideas and poetic themes and the road less travelled is just what we think a poetic theme should look like. So obviously the poet must have meant those words seriously, and so the rest of the poem -- which if read plain is making it clear that those sentiments are humbug -- becomes difficult and mysterious because the conclusion does not seem to follow from them.

Which is, I suppose, as good an illustration of the purpose of literary criticism. Not to elucidate some hidden meaning about forging your own path in life, but to point out that it is, on the plain face of it, describing not some momentous life choice, but the kind of humbug we tell ourselves and our friends about the significance of our choices.

  • Indeed, +1. I was going to post an answer after reading the question yesterday, but you've already said it perfectly. But although the last three lines are indeed humbug, the poem as a whole is not: it perfectly captures our indecision in the face of choices, the randomness with which we ultimately make decisions (not always admitting to ourselves that they are irrevocable), and finally our natural desire to "make sense of" or "explain" our random decisions after the fact, as if they were acts of inspiration (this last part is humbug, but our propensity to propagate such humbug is very real). – ShreevatsaR Mar 10 '17 at 17:45
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I read in a commentary somewhere that Frost effectively pulled a fast one with this poem, inasmuch as he appears to engage in weighty thought about making a life-changing decision, whereas in fact, he couldn't care less and makes what is almost a random choice. If he had been honest, the subject of the poem would have been his indifference to the actual choice, rather than the choice itself, to which he gives more importance than it actually deserves.

Unfortunately, my library is in a complete mess, and I cannot find my poetry books. If I can locate the relevant volume, I'll add more material.

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    I'm downvoting for now, because I'm inclined to think this answer is based on a misreading of the poem. I'd be curious to know what textual evidence you could find to back this answer up, though. With sufficient evidence (which I believe this needs either way), even if I disagree, I'd be happy to change to an upvote. – Aza Jan 21 '17 at 22:13
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    That's essentially correct, at least with regards to the big picture of the poem. However, I'm not going to upvote it because you haven't based this answer on any evidence. – user111 Jan 21 '17 at 22:14
  • That's fine. I'll do my best, but... 2,000 volumes to sort through. :( – Mick Jan 21 '17 at 22:17
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    @Emrakul I think this reading is actually correct. If you read the poem description on the Poetry Foundation page which the OP links to, the description actually supports this reading. Frost was pulling a fast one, and college students took this poem seriously when he was in fact joking, and people today still do. Although, as Frost once said, according the Poetry Foundation page, he was never more serious than when he was joking. – ktm5124 Jan 21 '17 at 22:35
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    @ktm5124 Huh, that may be true. I'll have to look into it. This answer still needs references, though. – Aza Jan 21 '17 at 22:36
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I think Frost is alluding to the fact that people believe what they want to believe, especially in hindsight. This has some connection with the principle of uncertainty in psychology, which is that we require enough certainty in order to make a decision. Sometimes we see certainty which isn't really there, just to help us make a decision. I think it was Bertrand Russell who lamented that the intelligent are full of doubt and the stupid are cocksure. That's because there's more uncertainty in life, and our decisions, than we would like to admit. Frost imagines himself telling an audience, ages and ages hence, that he travelled this road because it was the road less travelled. But I think Frost is intending to be ironic. He is saying that one day he will feel sure of his decision, even though he was never really sure. Is hindsight really 20/20, or does it just obscure the truth so that we may reach a comfortable feeling of certainty?

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You're getting at the very essence of the meaning of the poem, namely he's contrasting the marginality of the initial choice with the potentially enormous, and unknown, consequences of that choice.

He doesn't strictly contradict himself; he emphasises how slim the grounds were for the original choice in the first place - he chose the road which had "perhaps" the better claim, so he wasn't even certain that the grounds were genuine.

When, at the end, he returns to "I took the path less travelled by" he's reflecting on that decision he originally made on arbitrary grounds, in the light of the life he has had since, all of which has followed from that decision, and all the consequences in his life which have followed from it, and contemplating the fact that all those consequences were held in the balance by that one marginal decision.

He's contemplating what we now call the butterfly effect. But I prefer his characterisation.

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By conveying " I took the one less traveled by" Frost suggests that he is moving out of the flow of the world.In short it means that he does not go with the flow. Normally people are used to go with the flow of the world without considering about what they really want and what is the purpose of doing things.but in contrary to them(the majority who go with the flow) the poet takes the "less traveled" path which may contain many obstacles and hardships. However it makes a difference because everyone is used to accept what the society say uncritically.

Also "taking a path" emphasizes "taking a decision" which is hard to take but seems right.In our life time we all have faced such situations where we are completely confused to choose from two paths(of life)/decisions.In such situations We feel the insecurity and uncertainty like the poet(" Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.")

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"Had worn them really about the same,"

is not an absolute.

The grassy path may legitimately be less traveled, although the difference is trivial in the final analysis.

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