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How does Robert Frost communicate his sub-textual meaning in The Road Not Taken?


Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. He moved to New England at the age of eleven and became interested in reading and writing poetry during his high school years in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Frost drifted his way through a string of occupations after leaving school, working as a teacher, cobbler and editor of the St Lawrence Sentinel. His first professional poem, “The Butterfly” was published on November 8, 1894 in the New York newspaper, The Independent. In 1895 Frost married Elinor Miriam, who became a major inspiration in his poetry until her death in 1938. By the nineteen-twenties, he was the most celebrated poet in America, and with each new book – including New Hampshire (1923) and a Further Range (1936) – his fame and honours (including four Pulitzer Prizes) increased. Robert frost lived and taught for many years in Massachusetts and Vermont and died on January 29, 1963 in Boston.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Taken” depicts an image of a solitary traveller who has come to a fork in the road in his journey and must make a decision on which way to proceed. The much anthologized work has become the subject of numerous arguments. It raises the evident question of whether it is better to choose the path in which many travel, or to choose the road less travelled and explore it yourself. In “The Road Not Taken” the narrators tone and setting help illustrate the struggle a person goes through in their life to pick the right road to travel.

It is possible to read this poem as a statement of self-pity on the poet’s part. He feels perhaps, that he has been cheated and misunderstood because he took an unpopular path. In any case, however, this poem clearly demonstrates Frost’s belief that it is the road that one chooses that makes him the man he is. “And sorry I could not travel both…” It is always difficult to make a decision because it is impossible not to wonder about the opportunity cost. There is a strong sense of regret before the choice is even made and it lies in the knowledge that, in one life time it is impossible to travel down every path.

The setting in “The Road Not Taken” is very important. In the first line of the verse, Frost says “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” This line is a metaphor in which Frost uses woods to represent life. Using this as an image helps the reader to have a better understanding of the complexity of the problem that the speaker is facing. If someone was standing at the edge of some woods he would not be able to see clearly what was ahead, because it would be obstructed by trees and branches. Life is like those woods because no one can clearly see or predict what can happen in the future, only hope to choose a path that will lead you to a good future and happiness.

In an attempt to make a decision, the traveller looks down “one as far as I could”. During the first verse, repetition of the “oo” sound is used with words such as “wood” and “could”. This draws the attention of the reader to the words used emphasising the concept of the choice he will have to make. As much as he strains his eyes to see as far as the road stretches, eventually it surpasses his vision and he can never see where it is going to lead. The author shows man’s attempts to distinguish which path is better by trying to predetermine what lies ahead. Both the roads diverge into a “yellow wood” and appear to be about the same in their purpose. The first of the two paths is the more common route than the other less travelled path which “wanted wear”.

Frost presents a classic conflict – the decision between the common easy path and the exceptional challenging path. The roads seen superficially equal, yet for somewhat tenuous reasons the road that appears “less travelled” is more appealing. Choosing the already known easy path in life many people frequently endure reassures that the outcome will be predictable. While choosing the “less travelled road” represents the gamble facing a more difficult path in life, possibly indicating the type of personality he has, one that does not necessarily follow the crowd but do more of what has never been done, what is new and different. The traveller may hope to achieve an incomparable and satisfactory life; contrasting with the more familiar easy predictable life other people take.

The colours “black” and “yellow” are the only two colours mentioned in the poem. “Yellow” suggests warmth, autumn and possibly early morning, while the word “black”, may imply that those who took the road less travelled did not encounter any difficulties, obstacles or anything mysterious and unknown. The leaves had covered the ground and since the time they had fallen no one had yet to pass by on this road. Perhaps Frost does this because each time a person comes to a point where they have never been, they tend to feel isolated, as though no one else has been there either.

“Oh I kept the first for another day!” The need to explore both paths is expressed and it is not unusual but “knowing how way leads onto way,” the speaker realizes that one decision can have many other permanent consequences. As the narrator proceeds down the unworn path, he becomes aware of the fact that there will be no way he can ever return to the deviation to experience the other route. The traveller commits himself to what he has chosen at the end of this verse as once someone has performed an act or spoken a word that really defines who they are it might not be able to be undone.

Frost represents man’s limitation to explore life’s different possibilities. The narrator sighs at the end of the poem, gratified having taken the uncommon road, yet also sighing that he may have missed something. Yet he remains proud of his choice and it seems that to this person what was most important, was that he did what he wanted, even if it meant taking the road less travelled. This last verse arouses nostalgia in the reader with the use of time change.

I think there are many equally valid meanings to this poem and Robert Frost may have intended this. There is no judgment, no specificity, no moral. There is simply a narrator who makes a decision in his life that changed the direction of his life from what it may have otherwise been. It allows readers form all different experiences to relate to the poem.