Regret in ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost

Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ has been anthologized in plentiful collections and quoted in a multitude of settings, some without even knowing it.

Motivational speakers, pastors, promotion, and award speeches all tout its main theme of individualism and ‘following your own path’. How they took a different career path or made an infamous decision and that has put them at that podium. The poem’s last three lines often sum up these powerful talks,

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I–/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In the woods, the narrator comes across two diverging roads. They look down upon one until they could see no further but chooses the other. As the narrator walks down, he plans to keep the other road for another day but doubts that he will ever come back given the nature roads (read life) always leading to others. So the speaker resorts that he will be telling this story in ages to come: how he chose the less preferred option that has made all the difference.

Now, without downplaying its ability to inspire through positive individualism, Frost also expresses regret for the road he did not choose and even paints it in broad strokes throughout the poem.

Interestingly, Frost decided to name this poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, which begs the question of which road carries more weight to the main character. It would be expected that if the road he chooses has brought all the positive change that is always assumed as the poem ends, then Frost would have titled it close to that and not the alternative.

In his book on Frost’s life, biographer Lawrance Thompson insinuates that the poet wrote this piece with his author friend, Edward Thomas, in mind. He then goes on to describe the character of Thomas as someone who was always hard on themselves and no matter which option he chose, he would always beat himself up for not taking the other. We see this in the poem too. From the beginning, Frost portrays the narrator as one who is hard on themselves even in events that are out of their control. The speaker begins,

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both.”

And even after the narrator has made his choice and began walking down one path, he plans to come back some day and take the other to see what he has missed. While it is partly human nature to wonder about alternative options, the fact that Frost includes it in the poem more than once speaks volumes about the traveler’s regret for the road not taken.

Further down, the narrator speaks of how he shall be narrating this story with a sigh, somewhere in the future. Just like the rest of the poem, Frost lets the reader interpret this sigh however they deem fit. Looking at the tone in the lines that precede and follow here, this sigh does not suggest relief. In fact, before concluding that he will be narrating this story with a sigh, he is still unsure of whether he will ever come back to take the other path he left for this one.

Following that, the speaker begins to envision how he will be telling this story in ages and ages to come. He starts as if to show how he will open the speech but stops midway and concludes with mentioning how the less traveled road has made all the difference. Something else that I found interesting is that Frost does not specify whether the difference made is good or bad. However, our predisposition to the poem’s positive message leads us to assume that the outcome mentioned was good. I am not trying to be pessimistic here but seeing all the other instances in the poem where Frost insinuates regret, he could as well be explaining the irony of individualism.

There is no doubt that Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ is among the most complex and divergent works in terms of meaning, themes, and even the literal sense (diverging roads). In the Paris Review, David Orr termed it as ‘the most misread poem in America’. In addition to advocating for people to follow their own paths, Frost also manages to explore complex aspects of human nature when it comes to making decisions. When faced with important life decisions, we are bound to wonder about all the things we shall miss by sticking to either path. However, as Frost puts it, life has a way of leading us from one road to the other and so there is no need of obsessing over the paths we left behind.

What are your thoughts and questions on The Road not Taken by Robert Frost? Let me know in the comment section.

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