The Road Not Taken

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Date: 2006
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 71. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 1,541 words

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About this Work
Title: The Road Not Taken (Frost, Robert) (Poem)
Published: January 01, 1916
Genre: Poem
Author: Frost, Robert (American poet)
Occupation: American poet
Other Names Used: Frost, Robert Lee;

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

Poetry
  • Twilight 1894
  • A Boy's Will 1913
  • North of Boston 1914
  • Mountain Interval 1916
  • New Hampshire 1923
  • Selected Poems 1923; revised, 1928 and 1934
  • Several Short Poems 1924
  • Selected Poems 1928
  • West-Running Brook 1928
  • The Lovely Shall Be Choosers 1929
  • Collected Poems of Robert Frost 1930
  • The Lone Striker 1933
  • Two Tramps in Mud Time 1934
  • The Gold Hesperidee 1935
  • Three Poems 1935
  • From Snow to Snow 1936
  • A Further Range 1936
  • Selected Poems 1936
  • A Witness Tree 1942
  • Come in and Other Poems 1943; revised as The Road Not Taken, 1951
  • Steeple Bush 1947
  • Greece 1948
  • Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949 1949
  • Hard Not to Be King 1951
  • Aforesaid 1954
  • Selected Poems 1955
  • The Gift Outright 1961
  • Poems 1961
  • In the Clearing 1962
  • Selected Poems of Robert Frost 1963
  • The Poetry of Robert Frost 1966
  • Complete Poems of Robert Frost 1968
  • The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged 1969
  • Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose 1972
  • Selected Poems 1973
  • Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 1978
  • Early Poems 1981
  • Spring Pools 1983
  • Collected Poems, Plays, and Prose 1995
  • Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays 1995
  • The Robert Frost Reader: Poetry and Prose 2002
Other Major Works
  • A Masque of Reason (verse drama) 1942
  • A Masque of Mercy (verse drama) 1947
  • Selected Letters [edited by Lawrence Thompson] (letters) 1964
  • Interviews with Robert Frost (interviews) 1966
  • Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost (letters) 1972
  • Robert Frost: A Living Voice (speeches) 1974

Introduction

By Frost's own account, he wrote "The Road Not Taken" as ironic commentary on his friend Edward Thomas's Romantic nature. Biographical studies have held that Frost and the British poet often went walking in the English countryside and, on more than one occasion, Thomas expressed regret that they must choose one road over another.

It is believed that Frost began the poem in 1912, set it aside, then completed it in 1915, shortly after his return to New Hampshire. It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in August, 1915, and later collected in his third book, Mountain Interval (1916). "The Road Not Taken" has always been one of Frost's most popular poems.

Biographical Information

Frost was born March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, the son of William Prescott Frost, a newspaper reporter and editor, and Isabel Moodie Frost, a teacher. His family, originally from New England, moved to Massachusetts in 1884 after his father's death. Frost decided he wanted to be a poet early in life, graduating as class poet from Lawrence (Massachusetts) High School in 1892.

Frost married Elinor Miriam White on December 19, 1895; the couple had six children. He attended Dartmouth College in 1892 and Harvard University from 1897 to 1899. Although Frost was able to earn some money with sporadic publications and teaching jobs, he was frustrated over his unsuccessful career and moved his family to England in 1912. His first two books, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914) were published while he lived in England. Frost was a celebrated poet by the time he and his family returned to the United States in 1915.

In addition to his career as a prolific writer of poetry, Frost also held positions at many colleges and universities, including Tufts College, Amherst College, Harvard University, Middlebury College, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Yale University, and Dartmouth College. He was a cofounder of the Bread Loaf School and Conference of English held at Middlebury College in Vermont. Frost died in Boston on January 29, 1963.

Plot and Major Characters

The only character featured in "The Road Not Taken" is the narrator, a traveler facing the choice between two roads. This figure is frequently identified as Frost's friend Thomas, about whom the poem is reported to have been written, although it is just as frequently identified as Frost himself.

In the first stanza, the traveler recalls standing at a junction of two roads. He expresses regret that he cannot travel on both roads "[a]nd be one traveler." He also describes one of the roads down the length that is visible from his vantage point.

In stanza two, the traveler suddenly relates how he took the other road and further describes that chosen way. The description compares the two roads, hinting at their similarity.

In the third stanza, the similarity of the two roads is reiterated. The traveler then describes how he had hoped to return to the other path another day but knew that he would probably not come back.

Stanza four projects into the traveler's future when he will still be wondering about that other path. He states here that the path he chose was indeed less traveled than the one he left behind, although the reader now understands that the difference between the two roads is subtle. While the narrator claims that his choice "has made all the difference," the precise nature of that difference is left unexplained.

Major Themes

The prevailing theme of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is individualism. The traveler is alone and must face this difficult choice alone. Both roads seem very similar, and their differences may only be subjective. The traveler cannot go in both directions because he is but one person. The tension in the poem is provided by the individual's interaction with nature, which combines a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world with a sense of frustration as the individual tries to find a place for himself within nature's complexity.

Romanticism is another theme of "The Road Not Taken." Frost has made it clear in his essays and letters as to the origins of this poem and its inherent ironic nature as it pokes fun at the Romantic character of his close friend Thomas. Many critics still maintain that "The Road Not Taken" does not just describe another man's Romantic nature but also bears traces of Frost's own Romantic influences: William Wordsworth, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau. Frost's debt to Romanticism, which he tried to refute, is readily apparent in this poem, but is mitigated by his own ironic interpretation of the work.

Critical Reception

"The Road Not Taken" has always been extremely popular with readers and critics alike. On the surface, the poem's premise is simple, but critics have examined the poem in detail and have discovered depths of meaning not apparent in a casual reading. "The Road Not Taken" is part of a larger literary and artistic tradition involving a choice between two paths, figurative and literal. George Monteiro and Jeffrey S. Cramer explore the literary history of this tradition and how it has come to a popular culmination with Frost's poem. Nicholas Cervo is concerned with Frost's choice of the word road, where wheeled vehicles travel, versus path, which would seemingly be more appropriate. While Cervo acknowledges that the choice was deliberate, he argues that it significantly alters the interpretation of the work.

David M. Wyatt views Frost as a poet who made surprise an important element in his writing. Wyatt explains that in "The Road Not Taken" the reader expects to be offered a choice, but that expectation is thwarted because the choice was made before the poem began. William George also addresses Frost's trickiness by examining the poem's point-of-view. George demonstrates how the poem is narrated by a middle-aged man mocking his younger self in the beginning of the poem and his future older self at the end.

Thomas Elwood Hart delves into the more technical aspects of "The Road Not Taken," dispelling the Romantic image of Frost composing this poem in one sitting. Instead Hart provides evidence that every word and phrase was carefully selected and placed so as to evoke layers of meaning for Frost, his readers, and for Thomas. Hart also examines Frost's revisions from the poem's initial publication in the Atlantic Monthly to its later appearance in Mountain Interval.

Many critics, such as Robert F. Fleissner and John H. Timmerman, have investigated Frost's Romantic influences at length in connection with "The Road Not Taken." Although Frost did not consider himself a Romantic poet, neither was he a Modernist. Fleissner and Timmerman point to Wordsworth and Keats as the most obvious influences on his work, but Dickinson and Thoreau, Romantics of the American Transcendentalist movement, appear also to have had a profound effect on Frost's technical and thematic approaches to poetry, as evidenced in "The Road Not Taken." Robert Faggen further explores Frost's connection to Thoreau by comparing "The Road Not Taken" to Thoreau's essay "Walking," published posthumously.

Manorama B. Trikha argues that "The Road Not Taken" is an example of how some important choices in life are guided by outward appearances. The critic views this poem as an "example of man's self-encounter and self-division." Investigating epistolary evidence, Larry Finger suggests that Frost's interpretation of "The Road Not Taken" changed later in his life from ironic commentary on his friend's Romantic nature to a more self-reflective representation of Frost's own choices. R. F. Fleissner disagrees, maintaining that Finger has not taken all evidence into account and, in some cases, has misinterpreted Frost's meaning in the letters. Fleissner maintains that Frost never changed his opinion about the meaning of "The Road Not Taken."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410001710