The Road Not Taken: Analysis

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Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is a poem that deals with the nature of contingency, action and the manner in which seemingly inconspicuous rescissions may come to form an integral part of a person’s life. By demonstrating the manner in which an individual is faced with a simple choice which, eventually, may come to define them, the poem is both a commentary on subjective autonomy and also a lament over the way in this autonomy must exercize itself in restricted and unknowable conditions.

The poem begins with simple lines that place the traveller in a wood and presents them as needing to make a decision. Frost immediately places the reader within the moment of this decision and writes: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveller, long I stood” (2002, p. 105). Aside from placing the speaker of the poem in a completely enclosed situation, i.e. one in which they have only two choices, these opening lines already set up the key conceptual idea of the poem: that individuals are forced to make choices which, although inconspicuous, come to define them as people. This idea if made clear through the repetition and elongation of the word “travel” into “one traveller.” Frost notes that he is not able to take both roads and remain one person, and in this sense suggests that the necessity of remaining an individual necessarily involves loss and forsaken possibility. The opaque nature of this possibility made clear by the final line of the poem in which Frost describes how he started down the one path until it “bent into the undergrowth” (ibid). This inability to know the full consequences of a decision clearly does not alleviate the necessity to making it.

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The following stanzas of the poem show Frost attempting to comfort himself as to the non-final nature of his decision and him inevitably coming to realize that it is, in fact, irrevocable. In the middle of the third stanza he exclaims “Oh, I kept the first [path] for another day!” before immediately qualifying this with the lines “Yet, knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (ibid). Frost again uses repetition in these lines in order to suggest the passage of time and the sedimentation of experience within a single character. Specifically, the repetition of the word “way” serves to enact the poem’s suggestion that action follow from action and that this very fact means that it is frequently impossible to return to the previous opportunist once they have been missed. Rather, life itself is presented as being a build up of sedimented consequences which follow from other consequences and which only offer brief moments of stillness in which a decision can be made. These moments, however, remains conditioned by the fact that they take place within a particular circumstance; within a particular wood in which their consequences can never be fully known.

The dual nature of such moments which presetting them, on the one hand as a genuine capacity for free choice, and on the other as almost completely compromiser is affirmed in the final stanza of the poem. Here Frost again uses repetition in order to present the fatalistic nature of the decision that he has made. He writes how “ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less travelled by” (ibid.) The partial repetition of the opening line immediately presents the moment as a crystal clear memory; a memory around which the speaker imagines that he will have built his entire life. Frost again positions himself as having made a decision based in incomplete information and insists that this has “made all the difference” (ibid).

To conclude, this final lines transfigures the moment of decision into a moment of regret and resolves the enclosed environment of the wood into the enclosed environment of a human life; in both of these situations, individuals are forced to are faced with brief moments in which to exercize freedom. This freedom, however, is transfigured into a fatalistic regret. It is this ambiguity between fate and autonomy that lies at the heart of Frost’s poem, and that is consistently manifested through the use of soft rhyme, repartition and clear, but layered meaning.

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