Happy 140th birthday, Robert Frost — you’re totally misunderstood.
What most people don’t realise is that the great American poet was being ironic when he famously wrote that taking the road less traveled “made all the difference.”
The confusion comes up in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” in which a traveller describes choosing between two paths through the woods.
In the first three stanzas the traveller describes how the paths were pretty much equal. They “equally lay” and were “just as fair” as each other and were even “worn … really about the same.”
But in the last stanza the traveller comments ironically on how he will someday look back and “with a sigh” claim that choosing the “one less traveled … made all the difference.”
People wrongfully interpret this as evidence of the payoff for being a freethinker and not following the crowd, when it is actually a comment about people finding or claiming meaning in arbitrary decisions.
Here’s the stanza in question:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere 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.
That so many people misinterpret this line has become famous in itself.
Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” points out the massive distortion when Piper Chapman, the show’s WASPy antihero, tries to explain the true meaning of the poem to her fellow inmates.
As she eloquently puts it, “So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, s–t just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.”
And the joke’s on us, apparently.
David Haglund, a senior editor for Slate, has speculated that Frost may have deliberately misled his readers. Various quotes from Frost’s correspondences suggest that he knew people would misunderstand the meaning — and their confusion even amused him.
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