Wrong Roads through the Yellow Wood: Mischief and Meaning in Frost's "The Road Not Taken"It is quite easy -- albeit not necessarily appropriate -- to read Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as a meditation on the universal human business of making choices along "the road of life." After all, making choices determines how our lives will flow, and the "life-is-a-road" equation is one of the oldest and most familiar literary metaphors that we have. As a result, I have frequently encountered students who were taught in high school or who concluded for themselves that the poem is a sort of high-toned inspirational sermon recommending individuality (i.e., choosing the path "less-travelled by") or that the poem exhorts us to remember that the results which follow from our choices make "all the difference" in our later years. All of that is, of course, excellent wisdom to pass on to young people; unfortunately, however, one who does a bit of looking into the background of the poem will discover that Frost most likely had no such messages in mind. Also, when the reader discovers that Frost intended the poem for a specific person and refers to specific events and when one learns that the poet himself referred to the poem as "tricky" -- when the perceptive reader discovers those background issues, such familiar interpretations begin to seem like wrong roads through that famous yellow wood. As William Pritchard says in Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, "The poem was taken to be an inspiring poem, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble but is really mischievous."
Warren F. O'Rourke
Jefferson State Community College
Before proceeding any further in this analysis, let me candidly admit that for many years I took the fallen leaves in a yellow wood to indicate an autumn setting and, as a result, spent many hours puzzling over why a poem about the choices one makes in one's youth should be set in Autumn rather than in Spring. I also wasted many hours trying to explicate the various shades of meaning together with the sober tone implied by the word sigh. Behold, however, what happens to such "noble" interpretations -- or misinterpretations -- when one learns that Frost addressed the poem to Edward Thomas, an English poet who in the Spring of 1914 frequently guided Frost on walks through the woods of Gloucestershire. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia,Frost and Thomas were two of the Dymock Poets who met and wrote together in the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire, England during a brief period leading up to World War I. The woods around Dymock, where the two poets walked were carpeted with wild daffodils (hence the "yellow wood") each spring. Thomas was keen to show his American friend the local views and flora, but had a habit of regretting the routes he had chosen for their walks.The English poet with his Wordsworthian love of wild daffodils -- "Ten thousand daffodils saw I at a glance" -- would take Frost along various paths through the sort of forests that Wordsworth wandered, but at the end of each walk Thomas would second-guess his choice of roads and apologize to Frost for having chosen the wrong path even though the very realistic American poet could see that all the roads were "really about the same."
As I said, behold what happened to my "noble" interpretations of the poem. Boom! My assumption that the speaker in the poem is Frost himself was blown to bits as it dawned on me that the poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a character other than the author. Bam! My efforts to work out some sort of account for the Autumn imagery I thought I saw in the poem were vaporized by realizing the setting is actually Springtime. Pop! My attempt to read a somber and highly significant tone into the business about sighs "ages and ages hence" was burst like a child's balloon when I realized that here in one of Frost's best-known poems we find one more instance of just how much Frost loved "to fool around."
In a letter to his friend and editor Louis Untermeyer Frost reported that he had sent the original draft of the poem to Thomas but that the English poet failed to recognize himself as the subject of the poem because the irony had been handled with too much subtlety. Thomas -- along with millions of readers over the years -- failed to see that perhaps Frost was merely employing a bit of gentle and subtle irony to poke fun at people who analyze their life choices so seriously and so frequently that they become more than a bit boring. As Frost himself put it, "The Road Not Taken" is a "tricky" poem, and -- while I am working out the details of my new and sounder interpretation of the poem -- I know that I will have watch out for that old rascal Frost and his constant pranks and practical jokes.