Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” described by John Savoie as the “most American of poems” (Savoie, 2004, p.5), evoked different reactions from lay men and professionals alike. It has lead one writer to another to delve into the real meaning behind the poem. In this paper, the thesis would show that the poem was written not merely as Frost’s ticket to popularity in the Literary world, but as a creative piece, with a deeper cause, to express his mind about a friend, about the “will to believe” (James, 1897, as cited in Savoie, 2004).
On a literal level and without closer inspection, the poem would lead the reader to believe that the persona took the road less traveled by, despite the pull to discover what is on the other path. Indeed, the road less traveled must have appealed more to the persona, only to find out later that his passing through it had just made it equally worn as the other.
Simple interpretation would dictate the reader to think of the poem as referring to a choice in life, that each person has to make a choice and be blind to what the other path may have had to offer instead. To add to this, according to Brower, in his own work on Robert Frost, the poem is considered “a powerful image of the choices in life,” (Brower, 1963, as cited in Savoie, 2004).
The poems deeper meaning, though, that is seemingly difficult to unearth would drive readers to the background of the poem and the forces that worked together during its creation.
More so, it leads the readers to seek the author’s personal experience which may have influenced the writing of the poem. In addition, more commonly, according to Savoie, take the poem as “affirmation to individuality” (2004) because most readers overlook the persona in the poem and put emphasis on the author’s biography instead (p. 8) who set out with his poetry differently. As Louis Untemeyer noted Frost succeeded because he took “an unikely path as a twentieth-century poet,” (Untemeyer, 1951, as cited in Savoie, 2004).
The poem having lines such as “And both that morning equally lay” and later on contradicted by another line “I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference” received quite a number of criticisms and admirations alike. Winters, as cited by Savoie, considered the poem “flawed yet perfectly representative of Frost’s poetry as a whole” and considers the poem as suffering from the “careless philosophy of a fallen ‘Emersonian romantic… without Emerson’s religious conviction” (Winters, as cited in Savoie, 2004, p. 11).
Frost’s style certainly differed from his modernist contemporaries: Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Elliot. As the turn of the century apparently allowed literature to metamorphose from romanticism, realism, naturalism to modernism, Frost seemed wedged somewhere in between. He wrote his poems using the rhyme and meter of traditional English verse.
He used plain everyday language and focused on rural life. Embedded in his poems are allusions of tolerable levels (Pritchard, 1994). In “The Road Not Taken,” Frost describes a regular walk in the woods and encountering a split in the trail, the persona momentarily ponders on his dilemma on which route to take. Both routes would provide two different experiences that the character wishes to experience, yet knowing as well that it would be impossible. Simple, light to the ever busy minds, the poem is easy to digest (Barron, December 13, 2004).
Yet, to Bassett, according to Savoie, the persona in the poem prefers the lie over the truth and frequently referred to the “internal dissonance” as a “Frostian lie” (Bassett, 1981, as cited in Savoie, 2004). That is for New Critical views. While the New Critical could not explain the “lies” in Frost’s poem, explanation may be found with the New Historicism.
To account for the “seeming contradiction” in Frost’s poem, Lentricchia, according to Savoie, attacked the “clichés of image and thought,” the “myth of autonomous selfhood” and the “Fireside poetic form” with clichés. Lentricchia also believed that he did so to place his poem in the Atlantic to earn and pave the way for his other works (Savoie, 2004, p. 13). On the other hand, the common denominator of “gullible readers” and “discerning readers” is the meaning derived them from the poem which says that “our life-shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control.” (Lentricchia, n.d., as cited in Savoie, 2004, p. 13)
On the other hand, Lentricchia’s own explanation of the “lies” is not concrete in itself, that Frost was after the market and not simply writing poetry. Around that time in 1914, “The Road Not Taken” was written when England was still in “literary obscurity” and Frost’s career was not as impressive having published only one book and with six poems already been rejected by the Atantic (Savoie, 2004, p. 14).
Frost’s biographer Lawrence Thompson explains that the poem was indeed about Edward Thomas (Savoie, 2004, p. 14). Frost wrote Thomas on several occasions while the latter was at war. In late 1915, Frost wrote to Thomas, “You know I haven’t tried to be troubled by the war. But I believe it is half of what’s ailed me ever since August 1914” (Stilling, 2006).
Frost had also sent Thomas “Two Roads” as one of his letters (Savoie, 2004, p. 14). It bore a story about a similar trek in the woods, the thinking ahead about the paths to be taken, the possible regret over the choice made. It was referring to Thomas. The two even discussed the poem in their correspondence after that. Frost to Thomas in one of those letters: “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh and wish you had taken another,” (Thompson, 1970, as cited in Savoie 2004, p. 14).
To add, According to Sergeant’s interview with Frost, he had a similar experience to the man in the woods in his poem. He was going for a run in the woods with two roads intersecting when he saw a man, whom he thought resembled him, take the other path. Frost had thought that basing on the timing, he would probably meet the man at the intersection and perhaps feel like looking in to a “slanted mirror” (Frost). Instead of going down the path, Frost had stood just thinking about what would happen if (Sergeant, n.d., Savoie, 2004, p. 9).
In addition, Frost had read the poem several times before it was published. He first read it on May 5, 1915 at Tufts College before the Phi Bete Kappa society. Frost clearly believed in his poem’s meaning and depth and was not after its value in the market (Savoie, 2004, p. 15).
Certainly, based on the gather background of the poem, Frost had written it not to gain from others’ seeming confusion over the poem’s meaning. It was written about a friend and himself as a person. In conclusion, according to James (1897), there are three ingredients required for the will to correctly exercise belief. The two choices must be equally attractive, vital and important (James, 1897, as cited in Savoie, 2004, p. 19) and all these are present in “The Road Not Traveled.”
Barron, J. (2004). Robert Frost. In The Literary Encyclopedia [Web]. Mississippi: The Literary Dictionary Company. Retrieved June 24, 2007, from http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5144
Pitchard, W.H. (1994). Frost’s life and career. Retrieved June 24, 2007, from Modern American Poetry Web site: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/life.htm
Savoie, J. (2004). Poet’s quarrel: Jamesian pragmatism and Frost’s “the road not taken”. The New England Quarterly.
Stilling, R. (2006). Between friends: Redisconvering the war thoughts of Robert Frost. The Virginina Quarterly Review.