Most believe this a quaint little poem about taking the high road, about walking the difficult path, about making the right choice. Most, then, do not read this poem carefully (or at all). It has become a staple in graduation speeches and moralizing lectures. Very few understand Frost, even in his own time. He is tricky, deceptively complicated, and that’s what makes him brilliant. Let’s look a little closer, one stanza at a time.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;
Line two tells us he wishes he could travel both roads. One does not stand out to him as better; he wishes he could walk one then double back to walk the other. As he is “one traveler,” though, he does not have the time for that. He tries to peer down one but cannot see where it leads so the destinations of the paths can’t help him decide. His indecisiveness continues:
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 thereHad worn them really about the same,
The roads have no major differences. One has, “perhaps,” the better claim but this word shows him far from certain. It has more grass asking to be walked on but the last two lines tells us both have been traveled “really about the same.” That’s a major point against the typical reading. They have both been traveled. One is not more difficult or less desirous to the common walker. So what made him choose the path he chose? nothing of significance; it had some grass.
And both that morning equally layIn leaves no step had trodden black.Oh, I kept the first for another day!Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.
In lines three through five we see he wishes he could come back to travel the second path. Why would he want that if he were certain he was taking the best path? Nevertheless, knowing how one path leads to another he doubts if he’ll be able to come back. How many more choices will he have to make down this road? Will the next juncture have three paths to choose from? The next five? He knows it is not possible to travel all roads. Here is the tragedy:
I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
This sigh is often seen as a sigh of contentment: the speaker is looking back on his life satisfied and happy about the road he chose because “that has made all the difference.” If we read the tone of the previous stanzas correctly, this couldn’t be more wrong. This sigh is one of uncertainty, of curiosity, perhaps of regret? What would have happened had he chosen the other path? Where would he have ended up? What different paths would have been open to him? How would his life have been different? Perhaps he is content but he can’t help but wonder… and sigh.
Here comes the confusing part. If he said the roads were “as just as fair,” that one had “perhaps* the better claim,” and “both that morning equally* lay,” why does he end by saying he took the one less traveled by? I think the key to this is in the tense of the first line: “I shall* be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence…” The rest of the poem is in past tense so the speaker is somewhere between this choice and “ages and ages hence.” Has he just chosen the path? This is followed by the em dash, the long pause. He’s uncertain. Perhaps the only way he can live with his uncertainty is by convincing himself he made the right choice? by hoping he made the right choice? Look back at the title; his focus is on the path he didn’t take, not the path he did.
So what is “the difference”? Is he confident in his decision? Is he convinced he made the right choice? Is there a right choice? Oh, Frost. You’ve twisted us into an existential crisis yet again.
For more existential crises inspired by Frost, read “For Once Then Something,” “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” “A Passing Glimpse,” and “The Tuft of Flowers.”
*italics mine, of course