What Can We Steal From Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Road Not Taken,” poem
Author: Robert Frost
Date of Work: 1915
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem has appeared in just about every anthology of poetry ever.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Sentence Beauty

Highly anthologized works like “The Road Not Taken” have been taught to death and have had their meaning sucked out by well-meaning instructors.  (Myself included.)   For many of my students, Frost’s poem is one of the only they’ve ever read.  One reason for this is its accessibility.  No Elizabethan jargon, no naughty words, no racial content.  Just a narrator standing in a yellow wood, thinking about the two paths before him or her.  Sadly, many people think the poem simply means that “we all have choices in life.”  Frost does a lot of work in the poem, however, to add far more layers of interpretation.

The first two stanzas of the poem do not have a great deal of obvious emotional content.  The author simply describes the narrator’s walk through the forest.  In the third stanza, however, Frost breaks the emotional ice by allowing the narrator to inject some real emotion: “Oh, I kept the first for another day!”  This lament adds a darker tone to the poem.  Although the final stanza seems to indicate the narrator is happy with his choices, his feelings are more complicated than many think.

Poets are able to use meter and rhyme in ways that are not as easily accessible to writers who work in other genres.  Frost employs the same rhyme scheme in each stanza (ABAAB) and restricts himself to rhymes that some might say are somewhat simple.  (Lay, day, way…wood, stood, could.)  Was Frost unable to come up with more complicated rhymes?  (Facility/ability…contrapuntal/Allen Funt, y’all…chocolate cake/monster quake.)  The simple rhymes allow more people to read and understand the poem on some level.

Most importantly, Frost understands regret in a complicated way.  It’s not just that the narrator is thinking about the path he has chosen in life.  That exclaimed lament leads to some sadness; the narrator now knows that he was never really going to do a lot of the things he had wanted to do in life.  It’s very hard indeed to acknowledge the sad truth that we will never accomplish goals that once mattered dearly to us.

Frost also ends the poem more ambiguously than you might think: “I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”  Frost doesn’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing…only that he will be repeating the phrase with a sigh for the rest of his life.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ the kind of vocabulary and diction that will earn you the audience you are looking for.  A film like Pulp Fiction needs to be stocked with swear words and intimidating speeches.  “The Road Not Taken” must feature conversational English that could easily sound as though it’s coming from a grandparent.
  • Make use of settings everyone can understand.  We’ve all walked through the woods at some point, right?  We’ve all stopped at a fork in the road and wondered which tine of the fork to take.  Frost uses this as a metaphor for the big decisions we make in life.
  • Earn a big emotional payout by withholding extreme emotion.  Think about a person who is ALWAYS angry and ALWAYS complaining.  People generally don’t pay as much attention to those folks as they do the calm, steady people who use emotional rhetoric only when necessary.

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