The Road Not Taken

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway shares her fascination with “The Road Not Taken.” Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com/ or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

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Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” is fascinating to me in part because of the way that it is consistently mis-read.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.
These lines from the poem appear on many a t-shirt and poster. They seem to affirm a spirit of self-determination, and what’s more, the intrinsic rightness of going one’s own way. Wherever the mass of people are going – the well-traveled way – the truly independent spirit will go the other way, take the road less traveled by, and because of that contrary choice, will flourish.
Frost’s poem is great for many reasons, such as the understated description that perfectly evokes an autumn walk in New England woods, but one reason it is great is that it is not the poem most people take it to be. Frost has something to say about making choices in “The Road Not Taken,” but what he says cannot be summed up in those often-quoted lines.
When the narrator makes his choice, he takes the road that, in the last stanza, he describes as “the one less traveled by.” But was it? Here is how he describes it as he makes his choice:
[I] 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…
The road he chooses is equally lovely, equally untrodden, and only perhaps has less wear than the other.
Sometimes our choices really are between good and bad, or better and worse. Sometimes we do need to take the road that no one else is taking; if all the world is rushing headlong into madness, “the road less traveled” is the best road. But in this poem the two choices are each “as just as fair” as the other.
What do we do when choosing between two good things? What do we do when the turnings ahead are such that we truly cannot tell where the path we choose will lead us?
I have an analytical mind; I like to weigh things out, to know that what I am doing is the best path, the best approach. But I’ve come to realize over the last few years that I never have all the information. Some things cannot be known until they are experienced: relationships, job choices, even choices about what to write or what to read.  And so I have to choose my road knowing that I can only see a short distance ahead before the path bends “in the undergrowth.” If I wait until I have all the information, I will never go anywhere.
The narrator here is, in fact, almost paralyzed by choice – “long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could” – but in the end, he chooses. He goes forward. He takesone of the roads.  We could say that the act of choice is what, in the end, makes all the difference.
Yet the poem is hardly a paean to decisiveness, for “The Road Not Taken” ends on a curiously hesitant note. “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” the narrator says. He still thinks of the other road as an option – “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” – even while admitting that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.
I don’t want to be telling my own story with a regretful sigh, “ages and ages hence,” having chosen my road hesitantly, dragging my feet, looking back, always wondering if the other road is better. Whether my choices take me on a road less traveled, or a good road well-traveled, I hope to be fully present to the path before me and to my fellow travelers.
I am reminded of the words that C.S. Lewis gives to the lion Christ-figure Aslan in Prince Caspian. The little girl Lucy is regretful that she had disregarded Aslan’s call to her, and had made excuses for not following him. She asks Aslan to tell her how things would have unfolded if she had chosen otherwise.
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that… But anyone can find out what will happen.”
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3 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken

  1. Raydancer says:

    Thanks for making me think about this one. The narrator makes a choice that he feels is insignificant at the time, and he expects that he will (falsly) give it significance at a future time. I think he sighs not because he has mild regrets about not taking the other path, but because he knows he'll give his decision undue significance. I don't think the act of choosing is really on his mind. He does make a choice, of course, but there are obviously more choices than are described. He could have turned around and came back on the path he had come…or even not chosen and stood at the fork in the road until death (not likely, but not choosing is just as much a choice).

  2. Garret Johnson says:

    Really thought-provoking post, Holly. It calls to mind some words a dear minister-friend offered me long ago (related to indecision, wanting to have all the information so I could make the perfect choice and never misstep). His words were: “Do what is lawful, and trust in providence” (i.e. if you KNOW some path is ‘rushing headlong into madness,’ then you have your answer; don’t do it; but if your choice is between two good or seemingly neutral ways, and you have no apparent means of telling whether one is more “right,” then simply choose which one you feel pulled by and trust the sovereign Lord’s designs/care for his creatures). This may not be exactly what you’re saying, but particularly with regard to the idea that, “if I wait until I have all the information, I will never go anywhere,” it seems related. And your post here really fleshes out the idea. It also gives me a wonderfully fresh way of thinking of this great poem! Many thanks.

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks, Garret! I like what you said: do what is lawful, and trust in Providence. I think the popular idea of prayer/trust is that one prays, and then somehow there’s a clear answer. But that’s hardly ever been my experience. It’s a much deeper and more radical trust when one has to go forward genuinely not sure what’s coming up.

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