Six of Hearts: I am wrong about The Road Less Travelled By.

Headcanons, readings of text that are either not necessarily supported by the text can be tricky things. In some ways, it is natural to build on what is there, to bring in our own knowledge and experiences to our readings of characters, themes or word choices. It is, however, important to remember the difference between our headcanons and the actual text, if only because when we talk to others, they will bring their own constructions to the text, their own headcanons.

In some cases, these readings go beyond merely unsupported and, whether due to misreading, forgetfulness or antagonism against the text (or, indeed, other people’s reading of the text) become actively contrary to what was written. That is the position I find myself in when dealing with the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. Or, as it is often mistakenly named (and I have delibrately misnamed it in the title of this blog post) “The Road Less Travelled By”.

My specific misreading is, like a lot of misreadings of the text, based in the final stanza of the poem. Unlike a lot of misreadings of it however, it is based on, or rather diverges from, the first two lines of that stanza. My default reading of the poem, the one my brain brings to the front before I can conciously correct it, is that the famous final three lines are being said in the future, after the rest of the poem, a triumphant, if wrong, declaration that what made the difference is that the narrator took “the road less travelled by” in an attempt to bring meaning to an ultimately minor decision. Indeed, sometimes I almost convince myself that the decision is so meaningless that in fact the two roads lead to the same place, despite this being completely false and actively contridicted by the text!

I think this reading is almost entirely brought on as a reaction not to the poem itself so much as the most common misreading of it, the “triumphant declaration” I mentioned above, which only really uses the final three lines of the poem. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I-/I took the road less travelled by,/and that has made all the difference.”. Commonly, the last full stop is, when read aloud, converted to an exclaimination point, as done by Robin Williams in the film The Dead Poets Society. It is treated as a declaration of independence, that what really mattered is that the narrator took “their own path” and didn’t follow the crowd. But again, I think this common reading focused on these three lines, which we might actually call The Road Less Travelled By, a three line poem in itself given how it is often used, misses a lot of the poem.

The rest of the poem is at pains to establish that “the passing there/ had worn them really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay”. The narrarator is faced with two options in the wood that (I assume autumn, given that the wood has turned yellow and the leaves are lying there undisturbed) morning, and they are, crucially, as far as the narrator can tell, essentially the same. The second stanza is, I think, pretty indecisive, capturing the feeling of looking down two options and trying to determine which to take. It is not an informed choice, given that the undergrowth blocks the view of the final destination of either road. But a choice is made.

Even in the final verse, the narrator notes this. “I shall be saying this with a sigh/ some ages and ages hence”,before reaching those famous final lines. The narrator knows not only that this is not a choice made based on the observable facts, but also that time will remake the importance of this decision and recast it as being a well thought out and indeed noble choice, to take the road less travelled by. In other words, the narrator knows that in the future, they will convert this sorry autumn day where they took the path that may be slightly less walked along, and turn it into…well, the three line poem The Road Less Travelled By.

But that’s not to say that this choice is completely meaningless, and certainly not that my reading of it as a minor or even meaningless decision is correct, because of what I think may be the most important stanza of the poem; the penultimate one. “Oh, I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way, /I doubted if I should ever come back.”. The two roads are, in fact, leading to seperate places, and like so much of life, you can’t remake this decision. While the choice was not made for any particular reason, and will be reimagined by the narrator in future so that the reasoning behind it was the important part, the choice is still made. The narrator will not stand in these woods again and be able to take the other road. The title even puts emphasis on the other road. The road more travelled by. The Road Not Taken.

I’ve been thinking about this poem because I am at a fairly important crossroads of my own life now, and I am feeling drawn towards a particular path, despite having tried my hardest to climb another, steeper, possibly more rewarding but definitely more brutal on me path. Perhaps I will keep going, perhaps I will turn onto a new road, but one thing is for sure: I will not stand in this yellow wood again, as long as I live. There will always be a Road Not Taken.

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