August 24, 2015

How Well Do You Know Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”?

By Erica R. Hendry

You’ve read it at least a handful of times as a child, and likely later in life, too. But many people still confuse the meaning of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

After our show on the 100th anniversary of the poem, New York Times poetry critic David Orr gave us this quiz to test how much we know about the oft-quoted lines.

Hint: The beauty of the poem, Orr says, is that in many cases, several interpretations are correct.

Question:  What does the title “The Road Not Taken” refer to?

  1. The road not taken by the speaker; that is, the road other people have taken, and that the speaker says he will later claim was more traveled.
  2. The road not taken by other people; that is, the road the speaker takes, and that he says he will later claim was less traveled.
  3. Both roads, because whichever road you pick necessarily invokes the other road.
  4. Neither road, because “the road not taken” refers to the speaker’s position at the crossroads, prior to the taking of any road.

Answer:  All answers here are plausible.

Question: The phrase “and sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler” means:

  1. The speaker believes that even if he returns to the crossroads later and takes the other road, he will be in some sense have become a different traveler by virtue of having taken the first road. “Experience alters the traveler,” as critic Robert Faggen puts it.
  2. The speaker is sorry that he is an indivisible, unified entity limited by the constraints of time and space.
  3. The speaker is sorry that he is not an indivisible, unified entity, since he is implying that he could travel both — just not as one traveler.
  4. The speaker needs to breathe deeply and count to 10.

Answer:  1, 2 and 3 are plausible. 4 isn’t plausible, but is probably good advice in general.

Question: The word “road” is important in the poem because:

  1. It puts the act of choosing in a specifically human context. Only people make and follow roads.
  2. A road is an assertion of will — it’s a choice in a way that a path, for instance, is not. So the speaker’s choice occurs within the context of another choice (the choice of the road maker).
  3. It invokes the idea of a destination. A path might meander and intersect itself, but a road goes somewhere. (And if you’ve gone somewhere, you can’t be everywhere).
  4. It allows Frost to quietly suggest comparisons with other famous literary road or crossroads scenes, such as the conversion of Saul and the patricide of Oedipus. You wouldn’t get much mileage out of “trail” in this regard.

Answer: All answers here are correct.

Question: The speaker says, “I shall be telling this with a sigh.” Why the word “sigh”?

  1. The speaker believes he will be satisfied with his choice. It’s a sigh of contentment.
  2. The speaker thinks he will regret his choice. It’s a sigh of sorrow.
  3. The speaker thinks he will be sighing, but this actually makes the sighing in question less likely. In other words, he’s self-aware enough to understand his own inclinations toward romantic disillusionment — he’s saying in effect, “You know how I am, I’ll probably just sit around sighing” — and this makes him (1) less likely to engage in the potentially self-indulgent behavior in question and (2) an interestingly sympathetic figure.
  4. Faced with the complex task of understanding his own decisions, or indeed, understanding the self that is presumably making those decisions, all he can do is sigh.

Answer: All answers here are reasonable. I favor 3 (or at least, I think it’s the most interesting and under-discussed).

Want more Robert Frost? Listen to our full hour on “The Road Not Taken,” and check out our Robert Frost reading list. 


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