This has got to be among the best-known, most-often-misunderstood poems on the planet. Several generations of careless readers have turned it into a piece of Hallmark happy-graduation-son, seize-the-future puffery. Cursed with a perfect marriage of form and content, arresting phrase wrought from simple words, and resonant metaphor, it seems as if “The Road Not Taken” gets memorized without really being read. For this it has died the cliché’s un-death of trivial immortality.
But you yourself can resurrect it from zombie-hood by reading it—not with imagination, even, but simply with accuracy. Of the two roads the speaker says “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” In fact, both roads “that morning lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Meaning: Neither of the roads is less traveled by. These are the facts; we cannot justifiably ignore the reverberations they send through the easy aphorisms of the last two stanzas.
One of the attractions of the poem is its archetypal dilemma, one that we instantly recognize because each of us encounters it innumerable times, both literally and figuratively. Paths in the woods and forks in roads are ancient and deep-seated metaphors for the lifeline, its crises and decisions. Identical forks, in particular, symbolize for us the nexus of free will and fate: We are free to choose, but we do not really know beforehand what we are choosing between. Our route is, thus, determined by an accretion of choice and chance, and it is impossible to separate the two.
This poem does not advise. It does not say, “When you come to a fork in the road, study the footprints and take the road less traveled by” (or even, as Yogi Berra enigmatically quipped, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”). Frost’s focus is more complicated. First, there is no less-traveled road in this poem; it isn’t even an option. Next, the poem seems more concerned with the question of how the concrete present (yellow woods, grassy roads covered in fallen leaves) will look from a future vantage point.