Study Guide

The Road Not Taken Analysis

  • Sound Check

    The rhythm of this poem makes us feel like we are walking through the woods with the speaker. We can hear his footsteps in the steady rhythm and rhyme, with the occasional diversion to look at the colors of a particularly brilliant tree. With lines a little shorter than the average metrical poem (a poem that follows a set pattern of rhythm) and stanzas a little longer than the average rhyming poem, the sound of "The Road Not Taken" isn't like many other poems, just like the speaker, who tries to be different from everyone else when he chooses his path.

    Still, we can hear in the sound of the poem that the speaker isn't speeding ahead, but proceeding slowly and carefully, as he's not quite sure he's on the right path. The most obvious indication of this hesitation in the sound of the poem is in the last stanza, where the speaker repeats the word "I." This sounds like the speaker has stopped walking for a moment, and even the birds in the wood have stopped to listen to how the speaker will end the poem.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of this poem may be the key to its interpretation. The title is not, as it is often mistaken to be, "The Road Less Traveled," but is "The Road Not Taken." If the title were "The Road Less Traveled," the poem would have a stranger focus on nonconformity – taking the path that others don't take. But the title "The Road Not Taken" focuses the poem on lost opportunities – the road that the speaker did not take.

    The poem shows considerable ambivalence about which road is less traveled – one moment, one is more grassy, the next, they're both equally covered with fresh leaves. It seems that, on this autumn morning, neither road looked worn, regardless of what the speaker may say when he tells the story years from now.

    But the speaker made a choice, and took a path. In taking that path, he gave up his chance to take the other one. Metaphorically, this means that the speaker is reflecting on his life choices, and how they are going to affect his life. What could have happened if he made a different choice? What his life would have been like?

    More than anything in the text of the poem, this title hints that the poem is about lost opportunities, and the complexities of choices, not just choosing the path that is fresh and new.

  • Setting

    Our setting is in a forest, but it's not "lovely dark and deep" like the woods in one of Frost's other famous poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Instead, these woods are just yellow, and our speaker is not, like in the other poem, in a horse drawn cart, but on foot.

    It's fall in this poem – the trees are turning colors, and the leaves are falling. It's probably quite pretty out, with the crisp smell of autumn in the air. There's a nice little road, probably gravel or dirt, running through the woods, which suggests that there's a good amount of traffic running through here. But it's early enough in the morning that the fallen leaves are still fresh on the road, and one road is even grassy. Neither road shows much sign of wear.

    So here our speaker is, in the fall without a map or a worn path to lead him on his way. He studies the paths, but more to try and choose which one to take than to appreciate their beauty.

    Overall, this setting would be a pretty nice place to be, looking at the colors, choosing our path as we went, and walking in the fresh air all day.

  • Speaker

    Our speaker is a very conflicted guy. He doesn't tell us too much about himself, but we know that he is facing a big decision; the road he's walking on, and the life he's leading, is splitting into two separate roads up ahead. Leaves are falling and the woods are yellow, so, if the woods are a metaphor for the speaker's life, we can guess that he's somewhere in the fall of his life, maybe his forties or fifties. In this stage of his life, it's probably too late to go back and change his mind after he makes big decisions; he knows that he probably will never have time.

    The decision he's up against could be something like changing careers or moving to a different place. He could just be having the typical mid-life crisis, unsure if he likes where his life is going, even though he always thought he would. Whatever the decision is, it must be major, because he knows that he'll still be talking about it far in the future, saying that it made a big difference in his life.

    We can guess that he likes nature, because he's out in the woods, just wandering around without a plan of where to go next. We know he's adventurous and impulsive, because though he spends a long time contemplating one path, he takes the other in a split second. He prefers to think that the path he takes is less traveled, even though both paths are about the same, and thinks that, in the future, he'll say that he took the path less traveled no matter what.

    We're not sure if our speaker is happy or sad with the choice he's made. What do you think? He might not know either.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    The difficulty of this poem fits its subject: you're not hiking up a mountain, but taking a lovely walk in the woods. The language is pretty straightforward and easy to follow, with little bumps but no major hills to climb. However, just like the speaker of the poem has to make a decision about which path to take, you have to make a decision about what the poem means to you, because there's more than one possible meaning. Luckily, unlike choosing a path in the woods, with poetic meaning, you can choose more than one.

  • Calling Card

    Pick Your Own Meaning

    Frost likes to leave the meaning of his poems up to the reader. He guides us in the right direction with hints and suggestions, but in the end, he uses a lot of words and phrases that probably mean one thing – but could very well mean something completely different. This makes Frost poems fun to read, because the reader gets to brainstorm lots of possible meanings, and then choose what the poem means to them. It also makes it so that every new time you read a Frost poem, you can find a slightly different meaning in it.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Quintains of Iambic Tetrameter

    This poem has a pretty complicated form. We'll start with the (relatively) simple stuff. The poem consists of four stanzas with five lines each. These are called quintains. And in each quintain, the rhyme scheme is ABAAB. For example, take the first stanza:

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, (A)
    And sorry I could not travel both (B)
    And be one traveler, long I stood (A)
    And looked down one as far as I could (A)
    To where it bent in the undergrowth; (B)

    The rhythm of the poem is a bit trickier. It is basically iambic, which means that there is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (da DUM). There are many variations in this poem, most of which are anapestic, which means that there are two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (da da DUM).

    The most common use of iambs in poetry is in pentameter, which means that there are five "feet," or units of stressed and unstressed syllables, in the poem. But this poem is in iambic tetrameter, which means that there are only four feet (tetra = four). If you read the poem aloud, you should be able to hear four distinct beats per line. It will sound roughly like this: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

    Let's look at the first line as an example. Stressed syllables are in bold and italic.

    Two roads | diverged | in a yell|ow wood

    Each of the four feet in this line is iambic except for the third, because both "in" and "a" are unstressed syllables, making it an anapest.

    So this poem has a rhythm and rhyme scheme, but they depart a little from the norm, just like the speaker of this poem, who chooses his own path.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Roads

    This poem is about actual and figurative roads: the roads we walk and drive on, and the roads we take through life. As the speaker of this poem discusses, for every road we take, there's a road we don't take. Wrong turn or not, the roads we take can end up making significant changes in our lives. And we'll always wonder about the roads that we didn't try.

    • Line 1: This line sets the scene for the literal and metaphorical fork in the road that the speaker faces. The road splitting in the woods is a metaphor for a choice. Wherever the speaker's life has taken him so far, he has come to the point where, to go any farther, he needs to make a choice that takes him down one path and precludes him from taking the other. Because the fork in the road is a metaphor for choices throughout the poem, it's called an extended metaphor.
    • Lines 4-5: This description of the road is a metaphor for the future. Just like we can only see a path in the woods for so far, we can only see the consequences of our decisions for a short while into our future.
    • Line 6: Here, the speaker decides that, even though he's spent a long time looking down one road, he's going to take the other, which seems just as interesting. This is probably a metaphor for a sudden decision – when we think about doing one thing, like, say, staying with a boyfriend or girlfriend, for a long time. But then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves doing something else – dumping the boy or girl, and setting out on a new path. We don't know why we did it, other than that we thought we'd be just as happy with one choice as the other.
    • Lines 13-15: The speaker wants to be able to take both roads, but realizes that the nature of these roads is such that he probably will never be able to come back to this place. This is a metaphor for a decision that changes everything – once you've made it you can never go back.
    • Lines 18-20: The repetition of the first line brings us back to the beginning of the extended metaphor, and then the last two lines conclude the metaphor. In line 19, one of the roads is being affirmed as less traveled, even though the narrator seemed unsure before. And then we get the famous line "and that has made all the difference," which solidifies the figurative level of this poem by saying that taking the road that the speaker took, making the choice that he made, has changed his life.

    Nature

    You might not associate roads with nature, but remember, we're talking about a Robert Frost poem here. We're not talking highways – highways didn't even exist when this poem was written. Instead, this poem centers on two roads (more like paths) going through the woods in autumn. Nature in this poem sets the scene, and could hold metaphorical meaning as well.

    • Line 1: This line gives us the setting of the poem. The speaker tells us the woods are yellow, so we can infer that it's autumn. The metaphorical significance of this poem taking place in autumn could be that the speaker is making this choice in the fall of his life, when he's beginning to grow old.
    • Line 5: We find out here that these woods must be pretty thick, because a road can disappear in the undergrowth. Metaphorically, the undergrowth could represent aspects of the speaker's future that are unclear.
    • Lines 7-8: The speaker is biased in favor of nature. He thinks one path could be better because fewer people have worn it down. These lines are not just about nature, but are a metaphor for a decision that is less commonly made.
    • Lines 11-12: Here, we see the autumn imagery continue, and we find out that it's morning. We also see a contradiction of the earlier claim that one path is less worn than the other. This line shows us that the leaves have freshly fallen – perhaps masking which path was more or less traveled the day before. So, metaphorically, this line points out that sometimes there's no way to tell which decision is better.
    • Line 18: The first line is repeated here. The detail that the woods are yellow is left out, but the repetition shows that nature is still important to the speaker.
    • Sex Rating

      G

      No steaminess here. This walk in the woods is about as innocent as it gets.