All You Really Need To Know About Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”

[From the archives.]

The Road Less Traveled Wasn’t

Everyone has heard a motivational speaker, a high school valedictorian, a preacher somewhere, who has used Robert Frost’s poem’s last lines as encouragement to be bold enough to take the road less traveled and – they solemnly assure you – that will make all the difference in the world in your life.

That’s not what the poem says, though.

Frost was much more cynical than that. Read The Road Not Taken and see for yourself:

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 travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Every time Frost says one path looked different from the other he then says they were actually “just as fair”, “about the same”, or they “equally lay”. What’s all this nonsense then about taking “the one less travelled by” if each path looked as traveled as the other?

It’s about ego and not wanting to be bothered to retrace his steps. He knows that “ages hence” he’ll look back on his moment of decision and, as happens with the passing of time, convince himself with a sigh that he took the better path even though there was not one whit of difference between the two. But he’ll tell himself that he chose the one “less travelled” and that his life has been the better for it. His poem suggests he might even believe it himself.

Frost has done us all a favor.

 The Good Old Days

Nostalgia is an interesting lens. We may have fond memories of years gone by for good reason. Other times, our memories are faulty and we fill in gaps to cover over what actually were some not so good times.

Either way, we need to be careful of assigning over-importance to those memories.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

It’s not that we are never to think of what has come before, of course. The Bible often talks of remembering. God remembers his people (for example, Exodus 2:24), and calls us to remember him (as in Exodus 7:18).

And yet God says there is a time not to remember.

Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more. (Hebrews 10:17.)

God promises in that verse that nothing we have done will be held against those who belong to him. How can this be? Because our sins and lawless acts  – acts which certainly deserve remembering, deserve punishment – have been taken care of by Jesus.

As John tells us, Jesus “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” (Revelation 1:5.) Did you notice that John used the past tense? That’s why God does not remember our sins, because they are no longer part of our lives.

So when you look back on your own life, whether you actually did take a road less travelled or not, remember that God looks on your life as free from sin and so should you.

***

[This originally appeared as a guest post at Becky Wilson’s blog B.A. Wilson Writes.]

***

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12 Responses to All You Really Need To Know About Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    Makes one wonder, is the “straight and narrow” path well worn?
    Because many from the past have traveled it….

    Thanks for the Frost update.

  2. Laura Droege says:

    Good literary analysis, Tim. What I see quite a bit of in myself is the nostalgia (or anti-nostalgia) that filters everything through the lens of depression; I look at what were probably okay or even good times and see them as worse than they were. “Oh,” I think, “If only I hadn’t gone to that bleepin’ sexist college– If only I had left that church–” Maybe there really wasn’t much of a difference in whether I went to one college or another; I probably would’ve had issues with depression, etc., no matter what the environment was. So blaming the bad things that happened on the road I chose to travel isn’t productive. It doesn’t undo the past; it doesn’t change the present; it doesn’t move me forward to the future God has planned. I just stay mired in the mud of this less-or-maybe-more-traveled path of life. Definitely not what God wants me to do!

    • Tim says:

      I tend to that at times too, Laura, thinking that if I’d been somewhere else I would have had a different life. But my past is my past, and i am so glad God redeems me from it whether that’s from the things I’ve done or the things done around me.

  3. It’s always been an interesting poem to me. We often talk about the road less traveled (if it even is) as the better path. I can understand this as a Christian with similar phrases like the narrow path, but it strikes me as odd that we view it as the better option, at least as far as I’ve heard. I’ve become convinced that no matter the path we take on certain decisions that God can use them both. It still doesn’t eliminate the “what if I had…” or make upcoming decisions always easier, but I think it reflects the reality of God and His power much better.

  4. Jeannie says:

    I remember this post from before, Tim, and it really deepened the poem for me. With the standard interpretation, it’s a pretty sentimental poem, but this way it’s much more ironic and makes a comment about how we often reinterpret and rewrite past events to suit the self or story we want to present.

    • Tim says:

      It wasn’t until someone took me through it line by line that I got it myself, Jeannie, but it deepens the poem once you see what he’s really saying.

  5. Robert Frost was not the sweet and lovely guy people think, or rather, his poetry wasn’t. It’s actually very bleak in places, but there’s a tenacity and resolve and despite the bleakness, a love for the beauty of language and a sense of the stark beauty of the human condition. I love Robert Frost. His use of the everyday – the way he makes the mundane into a song – is *extraordinary*. He was a genius.

    • Who else could write a poem about a young man’s hand being chopped off and he bleeding to death and make it sound at once both completely ordinary and utterly beautiful? I’m referring to the poem ‘Out, Out’.

    • Tim says:

      Not that I’m an expert on American poets, but when he is the one I think most deserving of the position of poet laureate.

      P.S. I just read Out Out. Horrible ordinariness there.

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