The Road Not Taken

Right now, I’m reading a book called Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids, by Marietta McCarty. It’s a really cool book that essentially provides a course outline for the author’s philosophizing with children. I really like it so far (though it’s still early), but something irritated me as I read it having to do with the following poem:

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost              

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;         5
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,         10
And both that morning equally 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.         15
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.         20

I like Robert Frost. I think he was a great poet, and this poem is fantastic. And while he is considered one of the best-loved American poets, it doesn’t really seem to be for the right reasons. Little Big Minds falls into this problem of misinterpreting a great poem. Most people think this is a great, encouraging poem about making good coices and taking responsibility for one’s actions – this is how it is understood in the book.

Upon closer inspection, however, the poem isn’t really saying this. Look at lines 9-15, which tend to get ignored and forgotten. He says that both paths he wants to take look about the same – there’s really not a difference. In fact, he wants to go down both paths, but “knowing how way leads on to way,” he didn’t think he’d ever get the chance. So he picked one. And as he did, he knew that somewhere down the road, he’ll be telling everyone how he took the “road less travelled” and what a great decision that was, even though there wasn’t really any difference between the two. Essentially, this path that he chose will turn into a big-fish story – exaggerated beyond realism.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an English teacher and a poetry junkie, but it really bothers me when poems (especially poems and poets I like) are misinterpreted. Unfortunately, poetry (as with much of life) is all about perception – if you perceive that it’s about making good choices, then it is. Even if it isn’t.



One response to “The Road Not Taken

  • carla

    I’m glad to finally find someone who reads this poem the same way I do. A professor told me once that Frost was always disappointed that people didn’t get his little joke about the cliche, “standing at the crossroads of experience.” We don’t usually know when we’re at that point — we usually see it in hindsight.

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