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Robert Frost

The Road Not Taken

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


One of the most recognized and often quoted poems in 20th-century American poetry, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1915) celebrates the strength of individuality and the heroic decision to take control of life. The poem offers a simple narrative moment: A man, walking a path in the woods, comes to a fork in the road, and he decides which path to take. Indeed, the poem, with its apparent hyper-serious tone and preachy didacticism, has become a staple in commencement addresses, as it seems to demand turning away from the herd and following the heart’s inclinations despite any misgivings.

The poem, however, is deceptively simple. A major expression of Modernism, in which a generation of daring and uncompromising poets, centered in England, recast the nature of poetry itself through a subtle use of irony that infused their verse with an alarming sense of anxiety and spiritual crisis, the poem resists making heroic the assertion of choice in life and suggests in fact that such dramatic choices really have no consequences. Choice becomes meaningful only in retrospect, a measure of the ability of the mind later to refashion such impulsive decisions into something that passes for wisdom. Take either path, the poem slyly suggests with existential irony, it makes little difference.

Poet Biography

Although when he died at 88 in 1963, Robert Frost was regarded as America’s most beloved poet and the nation’s unofficial Poet Laureate, the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and one of the most recognized American writers of the 20th century, Frost struggled to find a publisher for his poetry until he was nearly 40.

Despite his reputation as the poet of the rugged New England backwoods, Frost was actually born in San Francisco, although he came to Massachusetts when he was 11 when his family moved there after his father, a successful journalist, died. A precocious reader early on, particularly the intricate metrical inventions of Edgar Allan Poe, Frost always knew he would be a poet. He struggled to commit to the discipline of education, attending first Dartmouth College and then briefly Harvard but never finishing a degree. He tried a number of occupations, including shoe repair, journalism, and even working the farm his grandfather bought for him when Frost married. He failed at all of them, and in 1912, desperate to find a publisher for his poetry, he and his wife relocated to Dymock, England, about two hours west of London. There he found welcome company among the Modernists, most notably American expatriate Ezra Pound.

Frost, then in his forties, quickly published two well-received volumes of poetry, and when he returned to the United States in 1915 his work was widely recognized for its lyrical grace, its carefully chiseled lines, and its exploration of the dynamic between humanity and nature. Over the next 20 years, Frost became America’s most prolific and most admired poet. His collections were best sellers, and Frost himself became a celebrity. Frost enjoyed a long teaching career at different universities working with young poets. He gave public readings that became entertainment sensations. With his craggy face and shock of unkempt white hair, Frost became, after Ernest Hemingway, the most recognized writer of his generation, gracing the covers of both Time and Life.

His verse, grounded in traditional notions of careful metrics and strict rhyme (free verse, he often complained, was like playing tennis without the net), was at once accessible and conversational and yet philosophically profound, even unsettling. Invited by President John F. Kennedy, a fellow New Englander and an avid admirer of Frost’s work, to deliver an original poem at Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961, the poet, then 86, could not make out the typed lines of the poem he wrote because of the glare of the sun. Without missing a beat, he recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” a poem he published nearly 50 years earlier. The bravura performance cemented Frost’s international reputation as America’s Poet. Frost continued to write until his death in Boston in January 1963, following a massive heart attack. He was buried by his wife and five of his children in a modest grave in the rustic churchyard of the Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes his own poem “The Lesson for Today”: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Poem Text

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;

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,

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.

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.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” 1915. Poetry Foundation.


A nameless hiker of indeterminate age and non-specified gender takes a leisurely morning stroll through a familiar forest, its trees a monochromatic yellow. The hiker suddenly comes to an unexpected fork in the path. This presents an unsettling dilemma, which path to take. The hiker regrets at first that they cannot go down both paths—“Sorry I could not travel both” (Line 2)—a quixotic, and unsettlingly childish response that masks major confusion. He is momentarily paralyzed, a happy walk suddenly morphing into a problem, a thorny choice he must make. Both paths tease, goad, beckon. It is a moment of indecision that quickly becomes for the timid, cautious hiker a titanic predicament. The hiker frets, peering down one path as far as he can see, to “where it bent in the undergrowth” (Line 5), and then peering down the other, trying earnestly to find some reason to choose one path over the other.

His first inclination is to play it safe and head down the more beaten path, the more path-like path. Which path had been used more? Heavier traffic would indicate to his careful logic a safer passage, a more reliable path. As far as the hiker can tell, as far as he can see, however, the paths seem the same, worn exactly the same. They are both green, “grassy,” indicating neither had been used much, that both “wanted wear” (Line 8). Both seem to offer a way that “no step had trodden black” (Line 12). In the morning sun, both paths “equally lay” (Line 11). Neither one is safer than the other, neither more used than the other. The hiker is left back where he started, how to choose? The implications of the decision become unsettling: Either path might offer something he would miss should he decide to take the other path.

The only non-viable alternative is to stand forever fixated; that is, self-inflicted paralysis. The hiker must choose. The decision to follow one path is more impulsive than considered, more about an illogical whim than actual logic or foresight. He moves on to one of the paths, the one that did not bend out of sight, reassuring himself quickly that some other day, later, he can certainly choose the other path. He tries, then, to minimize the implications of the choice. “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” (Line 13). Yet, as he reflects as he moves down his chosen path, such a reboot is unlikely, that life being what it is may never return him to that crossroad, may never give him the chance to follow the other path, to see where it might have led.

In the closing stanza, the hiker takes a step back and congratulates himself on his decision-making prowess. As he gambols down the path, he is proud of his pro-active response to the crisis of a fork in the road. He decides grandly, without a hint of saving irony or self-mockery, that this decision of his will become the stuff of heroic tales, recounted “ages and ages hence” (Line 27). He is certain that he will recall with a “sigh” (Line 16), an ambiguous emotional response, how when confronted by the dilemma of a fork in the road one extraordinarily ordinary morning he chose one way over the other and how that the choice has “made all the difference” (Line 20). He actually anticipates his own bloviating insincerity, how he will later claim boldly that he chose the path “less travelled by” (Line 19), a manifest lie. That choice he himself acknowledged even before he made it was really no choice at all, one path being no better than the other, just different. Only in the looking back will that decision, a product not of calculated deliberation but rather of raw impulse, become a decision that meant everything.