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Figurative Language in The Road Not Taken

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  • 0:04 Defining Figurative Language
  • 0:27 Metaphor
  • 1:56 Symbolism
  • 2:32 Imagery
  • 3:35 Irony
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

In this lesson, we explore the uses of figurative language in Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken.' These uses include metaphor, symbol, imagery, and irony.

Defining Figurative Language

Figurative language includes many different techniques to make writing unique and memorable. These techniques help the reader better connect to what a writer or poet is saying. Without figurative language, reading would not be nearly as pleasurable. In this lesson we will break down some of the figurative language in Robert Frost's famous poem 'The Road Not Taken.'

Metaphor

A metaphor is an implicitly made comparison between two seemingly unlike things. Metaphor is probably this poem's most obvious example of figurative language. In fact, the metaphor applies throughout the entire poem, which makes it an extended metaphor if you're being picky about it. The road in the poem is a metaphor for life and the path we take through it. The fork in the road is a metaphor for the choices we must make as we navigate our path.

Within the larger extended metaphor are smaller ones. For example, in lines 4-5, the road becomes a metaphor for the future:

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The speaker looks down the path and can only see so far, in the same way that we can't see the consequences of our choices in the future. In line 6, the speaker suddenly decides to take the path he has not been examining:

Then took the other, as just as fair,

This can be seen as a metaphor for making a spur-of-the moment decision in life. Finally, in lines 13-15, the speaker realizes he will never be able to come back to the place where the two roads split:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

We can read this as a metaphor for life-changing decisions that forever alter our path.

Symbolism

Symbolism is figurative language that infuses literal things with symbolic meaning. In 'The Road Not Taken,' many of the examples of metaphor are also symbols. The road is a symbol for the journey of life. The fork in the road is symbolic of major life choices. The fact that this poem is set in autumn, indicated by the fact that the leaves are yellow, can also be seen as a symbol. Autumn often symbolizes our later years, and in this case the symbolism helps us envision the speaker as an older person who has spent many years on the road of life.

Imagery

Imagery is figurative language that appeals to the reader's senses. This poem is rich in imagery. The descriptions of the 'yellow wood' and 'grassy' paths give us the sense of a beautiful, natural setting. We know that it is autumn, and we have many sensations associated with this. One can almost feel the crisp, cool air and see the brilliant colors in the trees. We see the surrounding woods from the point of view of the speaker, stopped at a fork in the road, alone in nature.

When the speaker looks down one path as far as he can, until it 'bent in the undergrowth,' we can picture the path disappearing into some dense forest grasses. There is a strong image of the light disappearing into the dark. When we are told both paths 'equally lay/ in leaves no step had trodden black,' we can picture the ground with its fresh blanket of leaves, as yet undisturbed by travelers. The imagery of the language really helps paint a picture in the reader's mind.

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