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Getting a Grip on Robert Frosts Most Misread Poem

The poem everyone knows, and almost everyone misinterprets

Quite literally since its inception, “The Road Not Taken” (read here) has been a source of confusion and some hard head-scratching. After completion, Frost sent it over to his friend Edward Thomas, sealing the envelope without any comment or explanation. It was meant to be a light-hearted ruse, a poke at Thomas who, on their walks together, suffered a chronic regret at each turn in the road and every forsaken alternative route. Frost had hoped the tongue-in-cheek jab would be met with Edward’s laughing dismissal and, fingers crossed, some friendly ruffling of feathers. But, Thomas didn’t read the poem this way. He read it the way bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and many a fresh-faced graduate might interpret it in a commencement speech, as an urge towards individual will. 

 

In a correspondence between the Frost and Thomas, following the latter's failure to see Frost’s intent, the poet wrote back:

“Methinks thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem. I wonder if it was because you were trying too much out of regard for me that you failed to see that the sigh [in line 16] was a mock sigh, hypo­critical for the fun of the I don’t suppose I was ever sorry for any­ thing I ever did except by assumption to see how it would feel.”

That Thomas, brainiac literary super star, couldn’t crack the simple joke speaks to Frost’s cryptic tendencies, often resulting for readers in more 'wtf’s?' and discouragement than clarity. His biographers and even famed Robert Grave didn’t pick up on the nudge – so don’t feel bad.

When you break it down, his poem is truly fodder for a hearty existential crisis, or at least some healthy befuddlement. If nothing else, you can sympathize with his peers who couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the poem.

Here’s the confusion: the title. Although commonly referred to as “The Road Less Traveled” it is indeed called “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a confusing title given the entire poem is about the path that is taken. The title leaps over the entire premise of the poem, and instead of relating to the substance of the poem, the path the speaker chose, it has a retroactive regret to it: it almost operates like the afterthought or the preclude to the next poem, “Shoot, I Shouldn’t have Taken that Route…”

Then again, isn’t this exactly what the poem is about, the haunting regret that decisions leave us with, as they did Thomas. Like the feeling of regret haunts Thomas, a titular lament looms over the body of the poem. In another interpretation, you could offer that the road not taken is the same as the less traveled road, suggesting that title actually does have a correspondence to the body. But then again, if the speaker does take the road less traveled (or the road not taken), it's suddenly taken and more traveled. So which road is he taking and which road is the title referring to? Furthermore, the speaker says his decision “makes all the difference,” the kind of claim we often make to comfort our decisions. But if the roads are truly interchangeable and we can't even decide which road is really taken, is it all just an illusory free-will the speaker is trying to assert? Does the road actually make no difference? You can go in circles with these questions and never reach a conclusion...

Trying to read Frost like... via GIPHY

It raises a larger question of author intent. One, what exactly is Frost saying, and two, is the confusion intentional? In his writing, Frost has said:

My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all
set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.
Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my
blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people
would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark.
Forward, you understand, 
and in the dark.

According to the Paris Review, it is hands down the most misinterpreted poem, and as Lit Hub analyzes it: “The title itself is a small but potent engine that drives us first toward one untaken road and then immediately back to the other, producing a vision in which we appear somehow on both roads, or neither.”

The best proof of the utter confusion this poem grants comes from our friend Google. A search for “The Road Less Traveled” produces thousands of links to the poem. It’s not just misread in it’s substance, the title is also butchered too - which can only lead to, you guessed it, more confusion.

However, the disparity between meanings maps well to his audience. One much smaller audience lives in academia and fawns over Frost for this exact duality that is so troubling. The other – remember the commencement speeches, and fridge magnets and the likes – appreciates his simple greeting-card wisdom.

Confusion, frustration, and whatever other neuroticisms this poem may evoke, our response to it alone makes it emblematic. That’s what poetry is after all – interpretation, right? We can all quarrel in our closed-mindedness to see it one way, or we can surrender to our own ignorance and admit that Frost is pretty f'ing genius. “I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” Frost has privately remarked.

 

Featured image courtesy of Timedotcom.