It’s a small irony in the career of Robert Frost that this most New England of poets published his first two books of poetry during the short period when he was living in Old England. Frost was very careful about how he managed the start of his career, wanting to make the strongest debut possible, and he diligently assembled the strongest lineup of poems possible for his books A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. Frost had gone to England to add further polish to his writing skills and to make valuable contacts with the leading figures in Anglo-American literature, especially English writer Edward Thomas and expatriate American Ezra Pound; Pound would be a crucial early supporter of Frost.
While reviews of the first book, A Boy’s Will, were generally favorable, but mixed, when it was published in 1913, North of Boston was immediately recognized as the work of a major poet. Frost’s career was as well-launched as he could have hoped, and when he returned to the United States in early 1915, he had an American publisher and a dawning fame as his work appeared before the general public in journals like The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly.
The years in England were crucial to Frost, but they have also caused confusion in straightening out his publishing history – the books appeared in reverse order in America and the poems that appeared in the magazines had in fact already appeared in print, albeit in England. What mattered to Frost was that his English trip had worked. 1915 became the year in which he became recognized as America’s quintessential poet; in August, the Atlantic Monthly published what is perhaps Frost’s most well-known work, “The Road Not Taken.”
In North of Boston, Frost establishes himself as a close and careful observer of man in the natural world. The wonderful title evokes the rural hinterland of New England, away from the Boston society and economy. It is a region of isolated farms and lonely roads, and it is in writing about that landscape that Frost merges the traditional with the modern to become a writer who is simultaneously terrifying and comfortable. Frost’s technique is to take a familiar, even homey scene – describing a wall, birch trees, two roads – and then undermine or fracture the sense of comfort that those scenes evoke by exposing the capriciousness of modern life. Frost always draws you in, and then reveals that where you are isn’t at all what you expected.
“The Road Not Taken”, which was collected in Mountain Interval (1916), seems to be a fairly simple homily about making choices:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler ...”
The roads divide, but the self cannot be divided so the poet has to choose. Working through the problem of choice, by the end of the poem he makes his choice in a famous statement of flinty individualism, the very characteristics said to define the New Englander and Frost himself:
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The decision again plays off against the title North of Boston as an apparent declaration of independence against cosmopolitanism, society and the opinion of others. Since everyone wants to consider themselves self-reliant and unique – we don’t follow fashion or the crowd, no sir – the conclusion of the poem taps into and appeals to our self-regard.
Yet when you read through the description of the roads after Frost has set out the problem in the opening stanza about having to make a choice, one realizes that neither road is “less travelled by.” The poet/traveler looks at one “as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;” and doesn’t go that way but instead:
"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."
Again there is confusion about the condition of the roads. The traveler/poet avoids the one that disappears in the (slightly ominous) underbrush, but then describes the one that he does take as “just as fair” as the one he rejects. And then it becomes clear the neither road has been travelled much at all. In fact, do the roads even exist at all? It appears they don’t.
Frost’s gently presented point is not just that we are self-reliant or independent, but truly alone in the world. No one has cut a path through the woods. We are following no one. We have to choose, and most terrifyingly, the choice may not actually matter. One way is as good as the other and while we can console ourselves with wishful thinking – “I kept the first for another day!” – the poet knows that there’s no turning back to start over: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The conditional tense doesn’t really apply here although Frost uses it to maintain the tone of regretfulness and nostalgia. Frost knows, as the reader gradually intuits, that you won’t go back because you can’t. The determinism of a choice, way leading on to way, in a string of events that becomes a life is unescapable. Frost’s popular appeal is all here in the layers of the poem, from the deceptively simple (yet masterfully rhyming) iambic lines to the evocation of mild regret of having made a seemingly innocuous choice. And then, the existential rug is pulled out from under your comfortably situated feet with the revelation that you have to make your own road – and it may not be of your choosing.
It’s the last stanza, though, that makes Frost into a genius, both poetically but also in his insight into human character, story telling and literature. The 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. The story that the poet will tell is that:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Notice the stuttering, repetitive “I” that Frost uses both to maintain the rhyme scheme (“I/by”) but also to suggest the traveler/poet’s uncertainty about who made the choice. The narrative drive is reestablished with the penultimate line “I took the one less traveled by,” to conclude with a satisfying resolution that ties everything in a neat biographical lesson “And that has made all the difference.” But it has made no difference at all. The difference, the life, is created in the telling, something that Frost does, of course, masterfully.
It is hard not to see the poem’s conclusion as Frost’s early commentary on his own career. The carefully crafted personae of the New England farmer, a seemingly artless concern for the doldrums of rural life, and an adherence to the traditional forms of poetry, even as those forms were breaking down under 20th-century Modernism. Frost was always rueful that he didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature, an honor denied to him possibly because the prize committee saw him as too popular, but also too provincial and maybe even reactionary. Frost perhaps succeeded too well in his pose of the apparently artless rube sitting on that wall. But where he succeeded was in being a truly great poet who also had widely popular appeal. Frost’s poetry always engages us on several levels, from its sound to the seeming simplicity of its subject matter and to the depths that are revealed when his poems are given the close attention they deserve.
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About David C. Ward
David C. Ward is senior historian emeritus at the National Portrait Gallery, and curator of the upcoming exhibition “The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers."Read more from this author
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- If scansion is new to you, check out my post on the basics.
- February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a colorcoded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, clickhere.
- After you’ve read up on Robert Frost, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
- April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts.
- April 25 2009: Audio of Robert Frost added.
The Road Not Taken
One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost) Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem – a probably more accurate poll than the self-selected poll done by poets.org. Lea also writes that Frost’s intent, in writing the poem, was to satirize his friend, Edward Thomas, who would frequently dither over which road he and Frost should walk. (Edward Thomas was an English poet who Frost befriended while living in England). Frost completed and sent the poem to Thomas only after he had returned to New Hampshire. Thomas, however, didn’t read the poem as satire and neither have other readers coming to the poem for the first time.
I personally have a hard time taking Frost’s claims at face value.
But here he is saying so himself:
- If you don’t see a play button below, just copy and paste the URL and you will be able to hear the recording.
More to the point, the provenance of the poem seems to be in New England – prior to Frost’s friendship with Thomas. Newman references a letter that Frost wrote to Susan Hayes Ward in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 10, 1912:
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
[My thanks to Heather Grace Stewart, over at Where the Butterflies Go, for the entire quote.]
About the Poem
The poem is written, nominally, in Iambic Tetrameter. Nominally because Frost elegantly varies the meter to such a degree that readers may only glancingly hear the imposition of a metrical pattern – the effect is one of both metrical freedom and form. I have based my scansion, by the way, on Frost’s own reading of the poem. I suppose that might be considered cheating, but Frost’s own conception of the poem interests me.
- March 28 2011 • Given some time and a conversation with a reader and poet Steven Withrow (see the comments) I’ve changed the scansion of the last stanza to reflect the way Frost probably would have scanned the poem (rather than how he read it). The new scansion, immediately below, retains the tetrameter meter throughout (more on how later). You can still find my old scansion at the bottom of the post. Decide for yourself which scansion makes more sense. As for myself, I lean toward the new scansion. All unmarked feet are iambic and all feet in blue are anapests.
Frost recites The Road not Taken:
The first element to notice is the rhyme scheme and overall structure of the poem. The poem is really four stanzas, quintains, each having the same rhyme scheme – ABAAB. The nested couplets within the stanzas subliminally focus the ear, while resolution to the pattern is found in the final rhyme. The overall effect of the rhyme scheme is analogous to that of the Petrarchan Sonnet. That is, rather than springing forward, the internal couplets produce the effect of rounded thought and reflection – a rhyme scheme suited to Frost’s deliberative intellect.
The same point I made in my post on Sonnet forms, I’ll make here. In the hands of a skilled poet, rhyming isn’t about being pretty or formal. It’s a powerful technique that can, when well done, subliminally direct the listener or reader’s ear toward patterns of thought and development- reinforcing thought and thematic material. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.
The first three lines, metrically, are alike. They seem to establish a metrical pattern of two iambic feet, a third anapestic foot, followed by another iambic foot.
Two roads |diverged |in a yel|low wood
The use of the singular wood, instead of woods, is a more dialectal inflection, setting the tone for the poem with the first line. The third foot surrounded by strong iambs, takes on the flavor of an iambic variant foot.
After the first two lines, the third line could almost be read as strictly Iambic.
This would be an example of what Frost would consider a loose Iamb. If read one way, it’s an anapest, if the word is elided – trav‘ler – it creates an Iambic foot. Although I don’t think it’s deliberate (Frost didn’t go searching for a word that could create a loose Iamb) but the ambiguity subliminally encourages the ear to hear the more normative meter of Iambic Tetremater. Frost will play against and with this ambiguity throughout the poem.
Note: I just found that Frostfriends.org scanned the line as follows:- ! ! - - - ! - !And be / one trav el / er long / I stood .........4 feet(iambic) (dactyl) (iambic) (iambic) Converting their symbols - it would look like this:
This is not an unreasonable way to scan the poem – but it ignores how Frost himself read it. And in that respect, and only in that respect, their scansion is wrong. Furthermore, even without Frost’s authority, their reading ignores Iambic meter. Frost puts the emphasis on trav-eler and so does the meter. Their reading also ignores or fails to observe the potential for elision in trav‘ler which, to be honest, is how most of us pronounce the word. A dactyllic reading is a stretch. I think, at best, one might make an argument for the following:
If one is going to put the emphasis on one, choosing to ignore the metrical pattern (which one can do), then it seems arbitrary to insist on reading traveler as a three syllable word. If one is going to put a modern interpretive spin on the poem, then I would opt for a trochaic second foot and elide traveler so that the line reads the way most of us would read it.
In the fourth line of the first quintain, Frost allows an anapest in the final foot, offsetting the pattern established in the first two lines. Curiously (and because the other feet are Iambic) the effect is to reinforce the Iambic Tetrameter patter. There is only one line that might be read as Iambic, but because the other feet, when they aren’t variant anapests, are Iambic, Frost establishes Iambic Tetrameter as the basic pattern. The final line of the quintain returns the anapestic variant foot but, by now, Frost has varied the lines enough so that we don’t hear this as a consistent pattern.
It’s worth noting that, if Frost had wanted to, he could have regularized the lines.
And looked |down one |far as |I could
To where |it bent |in un|dergrowth
Compare the sound of these regularized lines to what Frost wrote and you might begin to sense how the variant feet contribute to the colloquial tone of the poem. Regularizing the lines, to my ear, takes some of the color from the poem. The anapests encourage the reader to pause and consider, reinforcing the deliberative tone of the poem – much as the rhyme scheme. It’s the play against the more regularized meter that makes this poem work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of The Road Not Taken tells a story of pause and consideration. Its an effect that free verse poetry can approximate but can’t reproduce, having no meter to play against.
The second quintain’s line continues the metrical pattern of the first lines but soon veers away. In the second and third line of the quintain, the anapest variant foot occurs in the second foot. The fourth line is one of only three lines that is unambiguously Iambic Tetrameter. Interestingly, this strongly regular line comes immediately after a line containing two anapestic variant feet. One could speculate that after varying the meter with two anapestic feet, Frost wanted to firmly re-establish the basic Iambic Tetrameter pattern from which the overal meter springs and varies.
What’s worth noting, as well, is how beautifully Frost manages a colloquial expressiveness in this poem with expressions like having perhaps, Though as for that, really about. After setting the location in the first quintain, the self-reflective expressions, new to poetry up to this point, create a feeling of shifting ideas and thought, of re-consideration within the poem itself – as if the speaker were in conversation with himself and another. Colloquial, in fact, is “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.” It’s an effect that has been touched on by other poets, but never with such mastery or understanding as Frost demonstrates. Expressions like better claim ,wanted wear and the passing there add a New England dialectal feel to the lines.
Again, it’s worth noting the Frost probably could have regularized the lines, but he might have had to sacrifice some of the colloquial feel reinforced by the variant anapestic feet that give pause to the march of an iambic line.
Then took |the o|ther road |as fair,
Having |perhaps |the bet|ter claim,
Because |of grass |and wan|ting wear;
Though as |for that |the pas|sing there
Had worn |them just |about |the same.
Notice how, at least to my ear, this metrically regularized version looses much of its colloquial tone.
On the other hand, here’s a free verse, rhyming version:
Then I took the other as being just as fair,
And as maybe having a better claim,
Because it was overgrown with grass and wanted wear;
But the passing there
Had really worn them just about the same.
Curiously, even though this is closer to spoken English (or how we might expect the average person to deliberate) the poem loses some of its pungent colloquial effect. And here it is without the rhyme:
Then I decided the other road was just as nice
And was maybe even better
Because it was overgrown with grass and needed
to be walked on; but other people
Had just about worn them the same.
And this, ultimately, is modern English. This is the speech of real people. But there’s something missing – at least to my ear. Free verse poets, historically, have claimed that only free verse can capture the language of the times. I don’t buy it. To me, this last version sounds less colloquial and speech-like than Frost’s version. My own philosophy is that great art mimics nature through artifice, or as Shakespeare put it in Winter’s Tale:
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
In the third quatrain, the first line can be read as a loose Iamb if we elide equally to read equ‘ly – making the line Iambic Tetrameter while the second is solidly so.
After two more regular lines, Frost once again diverges from the pattern. The third and fifth lines are pentasyllabic though still tetrameter, each line having two anapests. Interestingly, as with the second quintain, Frost never seems to vary too far from the pattern without reaffirming the basic meter either before or after the variant lines. The interjection Oh is entirely unnecessary strictly in terms of the poem’s subject matter. Lesser poets writing meter might have omitted this as an unnecessary variant, but the word heightens the colloquial feel of the poem and is very much in keeping with the poem’s overall tone and them – echoed in the first line of the final quintain – a sigh.
The second and fourth lines are , but once again Frost reaffirms the meter from which they vary by placing a solidly Iambic Tetrameter line between them (the fourth line).
- March 28 2011 • The reading above is my original scansion. This scansion was based on the way Frost read it. The problem with scanning it that way is twofold: First, it breaks the tetrameter pattern, which isn’t unheard of, but very unusual for Frost; Second, it means the rhyme between hence and difference is what’s called an imperfect rhyme. An imperfect rhyme is when the syllables are nominally the same but one syllable is stressed and the other is unstressed. In the scansion above, hence is stressed and the –ence ending of diff‘rence is un-stressed. Emily Dickinson lovedthis kind of rhyme but Frost, rarely if ever. The problem is that Frost wants his cake and eats it too. To my ear, when I listen to him read the poem, he reads the last rhyme as an off-rhyme. But, like the Elizabethans, he probably would have scanned it as below:
Two things to notice: In the second line I’ve read the first foot as headless. This is a standard variant foot that can be found with the Elizabethans. Some call it anacrusis. A headless foot means that the first syllable of the foot is missing. Second, the last line is changed so that difference, at least on paper, is pronounced trisyllabically as diff/er/ence, rather than diff’rence. This makes the line tetrameter and makes the final rhyme a perfect rhyme.
Frost sometimes took criticism from more strictly “Formalist” poets (including his students) who felt that his variants went too far and were too frequent. In either case, whether you can it the way Frost read it or according to the underlying meter and rhyme scheme, Frost’s metrical genius lay preciely in his willingness to play against regularity. Many of his more striking colloquial and dailectal effects rely on it.
- Below is the original scansion: Anapests are blueish and feminine endings are green.
- If you prefer this scansion (I no longer do), then not only does Frost vary the metrical foot but the entire line. Even so, the two Iambic Trimeter lines (the second and last lines of the quintain) are octasyllabic. No matter how they’re scanned, they don’t vary from the octasyllablicIambic Tetrameter as they might. The anapests elegantly vary the final lines, reinforcing the colloquial tone – even without dialectal or colloquial phrasing.
Newman quotes Frost, saying:
“You can go along over these rhymes just as if you didn’t know that they were there.” This was a poem “that talks past the rhymes,” he said, and he took it as a compliment when his readers told him they could hear him talking in it.
What Newman and Frost neglect to mention is how the meter of the poem amplifies the sense of “talking”. Frost’s use of meter was part and parcel of his genius – and the greatness of his poetry.
If this was helpful and if you enjoyed the post, let me know. Comment!