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The Road Not Taken: Summary & Theme

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  • 0:01 Poem Summary
  • 1:45 Theme
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost is a well-known poem about the journey of life. This lesson will cover a brief summary of the poem, analyze its major theme, and test your knowledge with a quick quiz.

Poem Summary

Have you ever found yourself caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to make a difficult decision? Maybe you've had to choose between two equally desirable things, like following a career path to become an astronaut or a doctor. You may have considered the different paths of study or activity each choice would lead you down. We've all been faced with challenging decisions in our lives, and sometimes the difficulty of making those decisions arises from the fear of not knowing if what we choose is right, or what will happen as a result of our choice.

Well, the famous American poet, Robert Frost, once wrote a poem that describes this feeling exactly. 'The Road Not Taken', first published in 1916, is perhaps Frost's most famous poem. The final lines in particular, 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference', are often quoted and referred to as inspirational words that challenge us to overcome obstacles in life.

The poem describes someone standing at a fork, or turning point, in a road in the woods, trying to decide which path he's going to take. He looks down one road as far as he can see, and after thinking for another minute, decides to take the other one because it looks like nobody's been that way yet, and he's curious about where it leads.

He thinks maybe he might come back another day and try out the other path but he has a feeling that the road he's chosen will lead him to new places and discoveries, and he probably won't be back. He thinks wistfully about that road, the road not taken, and where he might have wound up if he'd gone that way instead. Part of him regrets his decision, but he also realizes that the things he's seen and the places he's gone because of the direction he chose has made him who he is.

The Poem's Theme

'The Road Not Taken' is more than a poem about someone trying to decide which road he's going to take on a stroll through the woods. It's actually a poem about the journey of life. The two roads diverged in a yellow wood symbolize a person's life. The narrator's choice about which road to take represents the different decisions we sometimes have to make and how those decisions will affect the future. Think of the expression, 'down the road', that we often use to describe something that might happen months or even years from now, and you'll see how Frost is making the connection between life and traveling.

Frost captures the uncertainty about making decisions and our natural desire to know what will happen as a result of the decisions we make in the first stanza of the poem:

'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth'

Here, Frost uses the bend in the road as a metaphor for what the narrator wishes he could see but ultimately can't make out in the undergrowth. The narrator eventually decides to take the other road because it really doesn't matter; whichever path he chooses, he has no way of knowing where he's going to end up.

The only difference between the two roads is that the one the narrator chooses in the second stanza is 'grassy and wanted wear'; in other words, it doesn't look like anyone's taken it before or in a long time. At this point in the poem, Frost tries to encourage readers to overcome the fear of the unknown: someone has to be the first person to try a new thing. Just think about what has happened when men and women have boldly gone where no men and women have gone before. Without that kind of determination, Christopher Columbus wouldn't have 'discovered' America, and Neil Armstrong wouldn't have walked on the moon.

In the last stanza of the poem, we learn that the narrator never does go back to check out that other road because the one he did choose took him in a different direction. He reflects on this now and wonders about that choice:

'I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence'

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