This is poem a lot of people have read, but what does it say? It seems quite clear. The poet came to a fork in the road, and chose to go one way rather than the other, which made a difference to how his life unfolded. That seems little more than a statement of the obvious – so what’s the big deal? Let’s take a closer look.
The poem is not entitled ‘the road less travelled’ but ‘the road not taken’. Whether or not one of the roads was indeed less travelled is open to question, as we’ll see. The poet, walking through an autumnal ‘yellow wood’, reached a point where the road split into two. In this age of quantum physics, we now know that the atoms we’re made of can indeed travel along two, or more, paths at the same time. They’re individually able to follow Yogi Berra’s advice, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”, but the vast assemblages of atoms that form human beings can’t, so choices have to be made, and this one took the poet a ‘long’ time.
He looked along one road as far as he could, until ‘it bent in the undergrowth’ and was lost to sight. He ‘then took the other’, because it had, he says, ‘the better claim’ since ‘it was grassy and wanted wear’. He at once, however, contradicts himself, telling us that in fact both roads were ‘worn .. about the same’, and ‘equally’ that morning ‘no step had trodden’ on either of them. The given reason for the choice is made to seem somehow less than entirely convincing. Similarly, although he ‘decides’ to keep the first road ‘for another day’, he immediately contradicts that with ‘doubt’ that he would ‘ever come back’.
In closing, he says he took the road ‘less travelled by’, although the evidence for that, as we’ve seen, is insufficient and unclear. He also tells us, unequivocally, that that choice ‘has made all the difference’, but how can he possibly know that, since he has no idea what choosing the alternative road might have led to? In all of this, there seems to be, on the poet’s part, quite deliberate ambivalence, ambiguity and rationalisation. He’s trying to get us to do some thoughtful thinking about choices.
The materialists among us would say that the atoms of which we’re made are subject to the deterministic laws of physics, and that ‘choice’ is an illusion. No ‘decision’ we made could possibly have been otherwise, no matter how long it took us. Such a view, however, is experientially deeply counter-intuitive, and has ethical and judicial repercussions that are hard to reconcile, so let’s pass on this.
When we make choices, we can’t know all the ongoing implications that might follow. We can only make assumptions based on what we see, hear or otherwise discover. We risk, however, ‘discovering’ what our prejudices want us to, and discounting whatever is contrary. We may then assemble ‘reasons’ for our choices, which would fail the test of close and honest scrutiny. Self-deception is so easy. We may imagine we’re non-conformists, when taking the road ‘less travelled’ is really about conforming to non-conformity.
The ‘yellow wood’ of the autumn season reminds us that we’re all part of an ongoing momentum of continuous change, irrespective of individual choices we believe ourselves to make. Perhaps the underlying message of the poem is that we need to let the universe unfold and ‘go with its flow.’ The roads ‘not taken’ were simply that, so let them go. Better that, than ‘sigh’ and torment ourselves by playing the games of ‘if only’ and ‘what might have been’. Fantasy, especially perhaps in the later years suggested at the close of the poem, can be entertaining, thought-provoking and even poetry inspiring, but we shouldn’t allow it needlessly to erode our peace of mind, and our joy in the present moment, and in the good things life has brought us, whatever choices we believe ourselves to have made.