Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
These are among the most famous lines of American poetry ever penned. People all over the English-speaking world can conjure them up, quoting the conclusion of Robert Frost’s most famous poem, The Road Not Taken. The poem’s clean language, simple cadence, and easy rhymes have become a part of America’s cultural fabric, appearing in television commercials, song lyrics, and video games. Yet, as poetry critic David Orr ’96 explains in The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, Frost’s beloved poem is anything but easy to understand.
It is a familiar story: The lonely traveler stands paralyzed at the fork in the road, forced to make a decision. Eventually he takes one road, and years later he imagines himself reflecting on how this decision made all the difference in his life. Is this a poem about rugged individualism and self-assertion? Or is it about indecision and our indulgent justification of decisions that at the time were mostly arbitrary? Has the poem tricked its audience for all these years? After all, Frost is careful to tell us that the road “less traveled” is “worn … really about the same” as the unpicked route. The difference lies only in the narrator’s imagination.
Orr’s book-length treatment of this poem, the no-nonsense New England poet who penned it, and its lasting influence in American culture takes up these questions. Orr argues that this poem, so easily written-off as a joke or trick by the literary establishment, is actually a masterwork of woven meanings and emotion. The Road Not Taken, like the decision placed before its traveler, defies easy conclusions.
The New York Times calls Orr’s book “the best popular explanation to date of the most popular poem in American history.” Publishers Weekly says, “Orr blends theory, biography, psychology, science, and a healthy dose of pop culture into a frothy mix so fun, readers may forget they’re learning something.”