The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

Notes on Form and Content

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2017, March 3). The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511 (accessed October 23, 2017).
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
Panoramic Images/Getty Images
  • The Poem
  • Notes on Form and Content
  • Commentary and Quotations: The “Tricky” Poem
 

Notes on Form
First, look at the shape of the poem on the page: four stanzas of five lines each; all lines are capitalized, flush left, and of approximately the same length. The rhyme scheme is A B A A B. There are four beats per line, mostly iambic with interesting use of anapests.

The strict form makes it clear that the author is very concerned with form, with regularity.

This formal style is totally Frost, who once said that writing free verse was “like playing tennis without a net.”

Notes on Content
On first reading, the content of “The Road Not Taken” also seems formal, moralistic, and American:

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

These three lines wrap the poem up and are its most famous lines. Independence, iconoclasm, self-reliance—these seem the great American virtues. But just as Frost’s life was not the pure agrarian philosophe’s we imagine (for that poet, read Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, especially the terrific “Keeper of Sheep”), so “The Road Not Taken” is also more than a panegyric for rebelling in the American grain.

  • The Poem
  • Notes on Form and Content
  • Commentary and Quotations: The “Tricky” Poem
 

Frost himself called this one of his “tricky” poems. First there is that title: “The Road Not Taken.” IF this is a poem about the road not taken, THEN is it about the road that the poet actually does take? the one most people do not take? the one that has

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

OR is it about the road the POET did not take, which is the one that most people DO take?

OR, for all that, is the point actually that it does not matter really which road you take, because even when you look way, way down to the bend you can’t actually tell which one to choose:

the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Take heed here. Note: the roads are really about the same. In the yellow woods (what season is this? what time of day? what feeling do you get from “yellow”?), a road splits, and our traveler stands for a long time in Stanza 1 looking as far as he can down this leg of the “Y”—it is not immediately apparent which way is “better.” In Stanza 2 he takes “the other,” which is “grassy and wanted wear” (very good use of “wanted” here—for it to be a road it must be walked on, without the wear it is “wanting” that use). Still, the nub is, they both are “really about the same.”

Are you reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”?

Because in Stanza 3 the similarity between the roads is further detailed, that this morning (aha!) no one has yet walked upon the leaves (autumn? aha!). Oh well, the poet sighs, I’ll take the other one next time. This is known, as Gregory Corso put it, as “The Poet’s Choice”: “If you gotta choose between two things, take both of ‘em.” However, Frost acknowledges that usually when you take one way you keep going that way and rarely if ever circle back to try the other.

We are, after all, trying to get somewhere. Aren’t we? (This, too, is a loaded philosophical Frost question with no easy answer).

So we make it to the fourth and final Stanza. Now the poet is old, remembering back to that morning on which this choice was made. Which road you take now seems to make all the difference, and the choice was/is clear, to take the road less traveled. Old age has applied the concept of Wisdom to a choice that was, at the time, basically arbitrary. But because this is the last stanza, it seems to carry the weight of truth. The words are concise and tough, not the ambiguities of the earlier stanzas.

The last verse so upends the whole poem that a casual reader will say “Gee, this poem is so cool, listen to your own drummer, go your own way, Voyager!” In fact, though, the poem is trickier, more complicated—at least that’s the way I see it.

In fact, when he was living in England, which is where this poem was written, Frost would often go on country rambles with the poet Edward Thomas, who used to try Frost’s patience when trying to decide which route to take. Is this the final trickiness in the poem, that it is actually a personal gibe at an old friend, saying, “Let’s go, Old Chap!

Who cares which fork we take, yours, mine or Yogi’s? Either way there’s a cuppa and a dram at the other end!”?

From Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope: “A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called ‘The Road Less Traveled,’ describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.”

~Bob Holman

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2017, March 3). The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "The “Tricky” Poem: A Guide to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-2725511 (accessed October 23, 2017).