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."
Poem: The Road Not Taken
Book: Mountain Interval
Author: Robert Frost
Publisher: Henry Holt (1920)
Character Speaking: Unknown Narrator
Analysis: If you follow my Twitter account (follow me here!), you know that on Friday I taught Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken in my Englist 111 (the basics of poetry, drama, and fiction) class. I was pumped to blow my students' minds by telling me that Frost's poem, often quoted by politicians and the like as a piece of inspirational dogma, might not be as hopeful as most people think it is.
Sadly, my students didn't know the poem in the first place, so the whole blowing their minds thing didn't happen. It made sad. Both because I didn't get to watch their faces as they made the connection and because that means they don't know one of the most famous twentieth century American poets.
But, back to the analysis: the last two lines above (the quoted portion is the poem's last stanza - you can view the whole thing here) have often been emblazoned on many high schools and other assorted places where inspiration is vital to continuing on in the midst of darkness. Unfortunately, if you read the first line of the last stanza, instead of just the last two lines, you get a whole other picture altogether.
With just the last two lines, taking the road less traveled has made all the difference - a seemingly positive idea. But adding to it the first line of the stanza's "I shall be telling this with a sigh", we get a whole other picture. We don't tell happy things with a sigh. We tell sad things with a sigh. At the most, we tell wistful things with a sigh.
In other words, taking the lesser worn road made all the difference - but not necessarily in a good way. There's nothing in the word to say that difference means better, which is the common misconception about this poem. Mostly, it's the now common "Making a difference" phrase that has helped to alter this poem's meaning, but in general, it's the lack of taking in the whole poem that really does it in.
Even in previous stanzas, there are hints that the lesser traveled road might not be the best place to be. One college classmate of mine even managed to make a case that our speaker is actually dead - the sigh being his last breath and the fact the speaker can never return again.
The lesson here? Never take just part of a poem (or just a piece of any narrative) and try to use it to create the whole picture. It's like taking just one scene from a movie and deciding what that movie's plot is. Imagine trying to figure out the entire plot by only watching the "I'll have what she's having" part in When Harry Met Sally or just seeing Twilight's birth scene. Works of arts are meant to be viewed as a whole, not in pieces.