The Road Not Taken – The Most Misread Poem in America?

by | Sep 14, 2018


The Road Not Taken may be the most well-known poem in America. If you are like me, you probably are totally wrong about its true message.

Until yesterday, I used to think that the poem was all about individualism: the benefits of thinking differently, being your own person and taking the less traveled path. My reasoning was based on its very famous ending line: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Yesterday I learned from my daughter that my understanding of this poem is TOTALLY WRONG! Here’s the whole poem, see if you pick up on what it really says:

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.

-Robert Frost

What? He says he comes across a fork in the road but both paths looked equally traveled! There appears to be no difference in the paths! They were both “just as fair” and “had worn about the same.” They both were covered with leaves!

In the ending stanza he basically says that he thinks in the future he’ll just make up a story about having taken the lesser worn path. From Smithsonian Magazine:

The [last] stanza is retrospective as the traveler/poet looks back on his decision – “ages and ages hence” – and comments how we create a life through the poetic fictions that we create about it to give it, and ourselves, meaning.

Similarly, from the Paris Review:

[T]he speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. 

So – maybe many of you knew of this interpretation of the poem and I was not paying attention the day we read this poem in high school or it’s a reflection of my career-preparation major in college (Finance).

Personally, I find the real meaning of the poem so much more interesting and relevant than the flawed interpretation I had previously. Robert Frost is spot on that we all look back and tell stories about our lives in an attempt to make sense of them.

Have a nice weekend.


  1. It’s all of the above…the art is in the uncertainty IMO.

  2. Robert Frost’s poem “A Dust of Snow” is often interpreted to be about death. When asked about that by one of my fraternity brothers, he pointed out the in New England in the winter, crows are the only birds around, it snows a lot and the sap of the American hemlock is not poisonous. I was told this story by a person present.

  3. Well done John!!!! I don’t know how many others misinterpreted this ending but I admit there are at least two of us… Thank You!!! I will add that I believe either interpretation illustrates important perspective. Taking the road less traveled is risky but can be rewarding on many levels. Hind-site offers us an opportunity to puff up our ego and be confident in our ability to make good choices.

  4. I am afraid I cannot share either of those interpretations. For me, the poem is not about rugged individualism. Nor is it about making up stories later in life. it is simply that our lives our constantly made up of a series of “forks in the road” and the ones we choose determine the paths we take. Who knows how life would have turned out differently had we chosen the other path? That message is no less poignant because it is simple and straightforward.

  5. You did end up writing about it! That’s great, my English class would be proud.


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