Summary of

The Most Misread Poem in America


Takeaways

0.6 min

This was really cool. The key point is that Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ isn’t about celebrating picking the road less travelled, but about the kind of self-deception we practice when we look back and construct the narrative of our lives.

Author then ties this back to what historians of the poet have long known: all of Frost’s work is like that. He has had two audiences over the years: the first, an audience of insiders who are poetry fans, who know that Frost is dark, and manipulative, and a poet’s poet; and the second audience is the mainstream audience who read into Frost’s poems American stoicism and countryfied wisdom.


Snippets

The results here are even more impressive when you consider that “The Road Not Taken” is routinely misidentified as “The Road Less Traveled,” thereby reducing the search volume under the poem’s actual title. (For instance, a search for “Frost’s poem the road less traveled” produces more than two hundred thousand results, none of which would have been counted above.) Frost once claimed his goal as a poet was “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of ”; with “The Road Not Taken,” he appears to have lodged his lines in granite. On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.

Whole first section of this piece is that The Road Not Taken is really popular.


Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Frost is the only major literary figure in American history with two distinct audiences, one of which regularly assumes that the other has been deceived.

Claims that the poem strongly resembles its creator: first audience is poetry devotees, who are in on the joke that Frost is bleak, dark, complex, and manipulative — a poet’s poet.

The other audience is the great mass of readers of all age levels who think he’s ‘quintessentially American’, a ‘symbol of Yankee stoicism and countrified wisdom.’


As Robert Lowell once put it, “Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone / to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.” The “great act” is for “the audience” of ordinary readers, but his true admirers know better. He is really a wolf, we say, and it is only the sheep who are fooled. It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.)

He knew!


Poets, we assume, are not popular—at least after 1910 or so. If one becomes popular, then either he must be a second-tier talent catering to mass taste (as Sandburg is often thought to be) or there must be some kind of confusion or deception going on.

Poems, after all, aren’t arguments—they are to be interpreted, not proven, and that process of interpretation admits a range of possibilities, some supported by diction, some by tone, some by quirks of form and structure. Certainly it’s wrong to say that “The Road Not Taken” is a straightforward and sentimental celebration of individualism: this interpretation is contradicted by the poem’s own lines. Yet it’s also not quite right to say that the poem is merely a knowing literary joke disguised as shopworn magazine verse that has somehow managed to fool millions of readers for a hundred years.

But, of course, you can make it to mean whatever you want it to mean.