Ours is not a poetry-reading culture, but then again, it’s not like we’re total illiterates. There are still a few poems out there that just about everyone seems to have read, and “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost is probably the king among them. Its famous last lines–“I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference”–have entered so deeply into the popular culture that you can find them anywhere from coffee mugs to motivational posters. The poem is so popular that taking the road less traveled has almost become an imperative. And it’s no wonder, really. What poem has better captured the American spirit? As everyone knows, “The Road Less Traveled” is the anthem of the rugged individualist, of every rebel who has ever walked outside the mainstream. It is a celebration of the courage of making the difficult, unpopular choice, of eschewing convention and truly being an individual. Right?
The fact is that this may be one of the most misunderstood poems of all time. Here are 6 things that show you have probably been reading Frost wrong all along:
6. “The Road Less Traveled” doesn’t exist.
Poetry buffs among you probably picked up on this already. The truth is that while many people refer to Frost’s famous poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” the real name of the poem is “The Road Not Taken.” In other words, Frost titled the poem after the road he didn’t take, the road more traveled! This is a huge deal if we want to understand the poem correctly. But why would he name the poem after the lame, mainstream road?
5. The road “more” traveled is actually not very traveled at all.
The second stanza of the poem makes this very clear. Right after saying that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear,” he turns back around and states that “as for that [as for it wanting wear] the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” As if that weren’t clear enough, he adds in the third stanza, for good measure, that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, no one had been down either road that morning, and all it took for the road “less” traveled to become about as worn as the other was for one more person to go down it! The roads were nearly identical! Where on earth did we get the idea that the road he didn’t take was some sort of major highway? We’re talking about two road diverging in a yellow wood, after all.
4. The speaker describes the road more traveled as beautiful.
Contrary to the popular reading of the poem, the speaker has no contempt for the road more traveled. At the beginning of the poem, he looks down it as far as he can, “[t]o where it bent in the undergrowth,” and then he states that he “took the other, as just as fair” (emphasis added). Fair–not as in just, but as in beautiful. Both roads are calling out to him.
3. The speaker hasn’t yet forgotten the road more traveled, and he knows he never will.
The final stanza of the poem plasy around with time in a very interesting way. “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” says the speaker, “Somewhere ages and ages hence.” While it is clear that the choice between the roads is already in the distant past (it has already “made all the difference”), the first two lines of the final stanza point to the distant future–a future in which the events of that day will make him sigh. Clearly, the speaker has not gotten over the road more traveled, and it doesn’t appear he ever will.
2. The poem is entirely suffused with ambiguity.
The most common interpretation of the final line of the poem is that taking the road less traveled ended up changing the speaker’s life for the better. That may be, but to casually assume that’s the case is to read into the poem something that simply isn’t there. All we know is that it “has made all the difference.” Was it a positive, or a negative difference? He doesn’t say. All we know from the poem is that it was an important difference. But then again, wouldn’t the same have been true of the other road? It would have been a different difference, if you will, but a difference no less. And if ambiguity is present in that final line–one so often read as straightforwardly celebratory–the rest of the poem is absolutely dripping with it. Take the sigh mentioned above. What kind of sigh is it? A sigh of nostalgia? Of regret? Of relief? Of satisfaction? A case could be made for any of those options. Then there’s the fact that the speaker says “long I stood,” when he is trying to decide between the roads. And even when he makes a decision, he can only muster the will to say that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim” (emphasis added), a statement he then further undermines in the lines discussed above stating that “as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” To top it off, he then tells us that he “kept the first for another day,” and then turns right back around and explains that returning to it is probably impossible after all (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”). This guy is clearly very conflicted about something.
1. The poem is about economics.
OK, I admit that sounds outrageous, but hear me out. As an economics teacher, I enjoy upending the students’ expectations–call it taking the road less traveled–by beginning every semester with Robert Frost. Before I’ve even introduced myself, I place a piece of paper with the familiar lines on every desk, and we begin: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” The students always think I’m trying to inspire them (I wouldn’t be so cruel as all that), but I’m actually just getting down to business, teaching them, in a way that I know will stick, the foundational concept of economics: opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is formally defined as “the next best alternative forgone when an economic decision is made.” The fact that it exists is the whole reason we have economics. Despite the convoluted definition, what it really means is simple: opportunity cost is the road not taken, it is what you must inescapably give up whenever you make a choice. Most people think economics is about money, but money is just a convenient tool for trading goods and services. The real cost of what you buy (or more generally, what you choose) is not the money it costs you, but what you could have used that money for instead. What economics is really about, in other words, is choice.
But what sort of thing is choice, and what role does it play in our lives? This is the key to Frost’s poem, explaining the sighs, the ambiguities, the inner conflict. What Frost’s speaker is conflicted about is not his decision. Whatever its consequences, the tone of the last stanza does suggest that he stands by his choice. Rather, what the speaker is conflicted about is having to decide in the first place. There is, in the poem, a strong sense of sadness about the fact of human limitation (“I could not travel both / And be one traveler”), alongside a realization that it is precisely that limitation that gives meaning to our lives and makes us human (“And that has made all the difference.”). Instead of pushing some cliché about being an individual, “The Road Not Taken” is getting at something that is both universal and profoundly human: the fact that there is loss in every decision, that choosing means not choosing everything else.
In their typical dull way, economists call this “the problem of scarcity,” a classification that can easily make students yawn. It’s a pity, because what they are really standing before is one of the deepest paradoxes of human existence, the fact though we are limited beings, the entire universe is not large enough to contain our desires. In confronting the problem of scarcity, every economist stands with his graphs on the threshold of poetry–not to speak of philosophy and theology. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the problem of scarcity, translated into the language of Augustine’s Confessions, would have sounded something like this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
For today, however, Frost’s own translation is enough: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .”