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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

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This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Robert Frost’s (1874 – 1963) poem, The Road Not Taken.

First appearing in Frost’s poetry collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916, The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most enduring poems. It has become a part of our cultural lexicon, appearing in in numerous films and books, among other mediums, including, most notably,  Dead Poet’s Society (1989), as well as in advertisements for Nicorette, Mentos, AIG, Ford, and more.

ROBERT FROST

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Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26th, 1874, to William Prescott Frost, Jr. (185- – 1885), a journalist, and Isabella Moodie (1844 – 1900). William Frost would die of tuberculosis when Frost was eleven years old. Shortly after, he would move with his mother and younger sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts.

It was during high school that Frost first developed an interest in poetry and literature.   In 1892, Frost enrolled at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He dropped out after only two months and took a series of menial jobs – teacher, cobbler, and editor of the Lawrence Sentinel, among others – to support himself. Later he would attend Harvard University but would drop out due to poor health.

Robert Frost published his first poem, The Butterfly, in the New York newspaper, The Independent, in 1894. On December 19th, 1895, Frost married Elinor Miriam White (1873 -1938), with whom he had shared valedictorian honours in high school. Together, the couple would have six children, only two of whom would live to see old age. Elliot Frost, born 1896, would die of Cholera in 1900. Carol Frost, born 1902, would commit suicide in 1940. Marjorie Frost, born 1905, would die in childbirth in 1935. Elinor Frost, born 1907, would die in infancy. Only Leslie Frost, born 1899, and Irma Frost, born 1903, would live to see old age.

After failing to generate enough income as farmers in New Hampshire, the Frosts emigrated to England in 1912. There Robert Frost made numerous friends, and garnered inspiration, with various British poets and writers. Among these were Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917), Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915), Robert Graves (1895 – 1985), and Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) – who helped Frost publish and promote his poetry. The Frosts returned to America in 1915. By this time, Robert Frost had published two collections of his poetry, A Boy’s Hill, published 1913, and North of Boston, published in 1914.

By the 1920s, Robert Frost had become the most celebrated poet in America. He received more and more accolades, which included Pulitzer prizes, with every collection of poetry he published.

In 1938, Robert Frost was widowed when his wife, Elinor, lost her battle with breast cancer. He never remarried. Between 1958 and 1959, Frost served as the consultant for poetry at the Library of Congress. Robert Frost died in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 29th, 1963. He was eighty-eight years old.

THE POEM

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, 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.
ANALYSIS
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As a poem, The Road Not Taken is unique in two regards. First, certain lines from it have become so absorbed by our culture that people have forgotten where they come from. And second, it is one of the most ambiguous poems in American culture.
In short, it is one of those poems that everyone knows, but few have properly read. The problem lies in the fact that for such a seemingly simple poem, The Road Not Taken can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. This is caused by two factors. First, the reader himself, who will invariably interpret the poem according to his own worldview. And second, the poem’s ambiguous nature. Who, for instance, is the narrator of the poem? Is it an unnamed narrator, or is it, perhaps, Robert Frost himself? It is this factor that partly explains the poem’s longstanding popularity: because it is so ambiguous, we are able to take from it what we like, not what the poet demands.
Much of the poem’s ambiguity can be found in the distinction between the road “not travelled” and the road “less travelled.” The road “not travelled” seems to refer to the path the narrator does not take. However, it could just as easily refer to a road that is not taken by others. The road “less travelled”, by contrast, seems to refer to the path people take less often.
One thing is clear, however: this is a poem about free will. The narrator comes to a fork in a road in the woods and is forced to decide between two different paths. Initially, the narrator feels that one path is worn more than the other, but later decides that time had “worn them really about the same.” The road described in the poem is both literal and figurative. It refers to both the actual roads and paths we drive and walk upon, and to the decisions we have to make in life.

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