Once upon a time, someone had the idea to tattoo the iconic lines to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” on their arm.
They chose the words “take the road less traveled,” accompanied by little footprints, stretched down the body in delicate script. At the time, the person probably thought this was a great idea. It was a great idea to forge their own path,to “take the road less traveled,” and to immortalize these words in their skin.
But the owner of this tattoo had committed one of the cardinal sins of literature: misquoting.
However, misquoting Romeo and Juliet’s “star-crossed lovers” is far less common than this epitaph. “The Road not Taken” is one of the most misunderstood poems of 20th century, and so, the tattoo owner is not alone in their error. Ford and Monster.com have both created advertisements encouraging people to take the road less traveled and strive for individuality (paying for their service or product, of course). It’s not a poem about forging your own destiny and being unique. It’s not a poem about walking against the status quo. No, “The Road Not Taken” is a statement about choice and indecision.
Right before World War I, Frost traveled to England. There he met Edward Thomas, a writer who would become his close friend. They took many walks together, but it was Thomas’s indecisive nature that made these walks difficult. Frost once even said that “no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh and wish you’d taken another.” Logically, Thomas was the inspiration for the poem. Hence, the “sigh” in the fourth stanza.
After Frost returned to America, he sent his old friend a copy of his future poem. Why? It was because this poem, to some extent, was meant to gently mock Thomas’s indecision. It was meant to be a joke, but Frost later found that people took this poem far more seriously than he intended. In fact, the poem caused Thomas to enlist for the Great War, a decision that eventually caused him his life.
The owner of the tattoo, however, could argue that without contextual knowledge of Frost, the poem true meaning is up to interpretation. And yes, it is true that poems have many different interpretations. However, a formal analysis of the poem leads to the same conclusion.
The narrator admits that both paths were “really about the same” and “equally lay in leaves.” Despite this fact, the narrator tries to gauge with path will be the better choice. He tries to look to where the path is “bent in the undergrowth,” but alas, he cannot determine which “way leads on to way.”
The narrator may have taken the road less traveled, but the poem is entitled “The Road Not Taken.” The narrator is reflecting on that road that he did not take that day. He is “telling this with a sigh.” It is regret that Frost capitalizes on. Indecision, and the finality of choice. To Frost, both choices are equally as good, but you just have to make one.
So to Frost, the owner of the tattoo did one thing correctly. They weren’t indecisive about getting his poem put permanently on their body, and they made a choice. According to Frost, “that has made all the difference.”