Robert Frost (Even If We Read Him Right) Was Wrong


How many generations of high school graduates have been misled into thinking that it’s always good to do things the hard way because Robert Frost is popular and many valedictorians and civic leaders have poor close-reading skills?

If we read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” correctly, he is saying that neither of the two paths would have made a difference because the paths were functionally the same, but the speaker will claim to have been a pioneer when he is old and bragging to his grandchildren in a rocking chair on the porch, who will believe him, the little nitwits, because he will have so much darn gravitas, so who’s going to say he’s wrong?


The Road Not Taken                        by Robert Frost


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;


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 traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


But are two paths ever the same? And if they are, are we ever the same walking down them? How much is the ground we are walking on and how much the weather and the clothes we chose to wear? How much the terrain itself and how much our choice of footwear? It occurs to me that this could be leading us into philosophy—gaah!—and it might be safest for us all if I just put my head down until the feeling goes away.

But I think it’s never only two roads, the right one and the wrong one. It’s about the million roads, all of them well trodden, and we simply have to figure out how to choose the one most likely to lead us home. Which of course necessitates how the hell to figure out what we mean by “home.” And it’s about how, when we look back, we reinterpret the past to make it look more coherent, more intentional, more like we planned the good outcomes. Yes, I meant to do that! (Suuuure you did…)