If you’re one of the legions of high school students who have read Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” you probably view it simply as a philosophical poem about making difficult decisions. Think again.
Many people are oblivious to the fascinating history behind this famous piece, involving the tale of two best friends that ultimately ends in one friend indirectly killing the other through this poem. Not quite what you were expecting, huh?
Here’s the poem for a quick refresher:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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.
Without any further research and on the initial reading, this poem doesn’t seem particularly sophisticated. Put simply, it’s about the poet’s choice to take the less-worn road over a well-worn one, on a trip that he’s taking. If a little bit of a metaphorical magic is mixed in, it then becomes about the choice the poet has made to make a unique decision, over a choice that the majority of people would have made, in an important moment on his journey of life.
However, a little research reveals that Frost dedicated this poem to Edward Thomas, who happened to be his best friend and to have also been a poet and an Englishman. The story behind that friendship sheds an entirely new light on this poem.
Hold on, I hear you questioning, wasn’t Frost an American poet? So how did he have an English bloke as his best friend? Well, Frost began his journey as a poet while he was living in England, and returned to America shortly after the first World War.
Like any other best friends in the roaring 20’s, Frost and Thomas took frequent nature walks, where they would admire the beautiful English landscape and try to identify interesting birds and other fauna and flora. During these walks, the friends would choose a path at random to venture down, and being the person that he was, Thomas would be constantly regretful of the paths that they missed out on and often blamed himself for not finding any particularly interesting birds (this strange obsession will be explained later). As Frost once said, Thomas was “a person, who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.”
On one particular walk, the pair were impeded by an aggressive gamekeeper wielding a shotgun. Frost, in true American fashion, bunched up his fists like a professional boxer and was fully prepared to start brawling with whacks and thwacks in a gun fight but ceased when he noticed Thomas hurrying away before the situation could escalate.
Afterwards, with Frost in the lead, the two friends marched to the gamekeeper’s house. Frost banged on the door, verbally assaulting the gamekeeper upon the door’s opening. The gamekeeper was probably mauled by Frost’s powerfully poetic voice, which prompted him to hide behind his shotgun again, but was too scared to point it at the fearsome Frost, so he directed it towards Thomas. Like any other sensible human being, Thomas engaged in a tactical retreat, but Frost firmly stood his ground yet again, like the Statue of Liberty standing against the dark depths of oppression.
After this harrowing experience for Thomas, he was deeply ashamed of having acted like a coward. On top of all this, the incident took place while World War I was being fought, and all of Thomas’ friends had gone to war. Additionally, at the time, Britain was advocating for “pal battalions,” which meant that the people who you grew up with, laughed with, played football with, gone fishing with, and shot guns with, would be guaranteed to be grouped together, and to fight and die together in the front lines. Thus, Thomas must have felt rather excluded and even more of a coward.
However, Thomas was an anti-nationalist. Although he often discussed politics with Frost on their leisurely nature walks, he was disinterested in the politics that started World War I and he despised the propaganda and blatant racism that were denouncing Germans at the time in Britain. He was more interested in enjoying the beautiful English countryside and the birds who called it home. In fact, he was even quoted as saying that his “real countrymen were not Englishmen, but the birds!”
Thomas proudly took a stronger stance against racism, violence and bigotry than before and, continuing the war analogy, he dug deep trenches and stationed plenty of machine guns in his fight against racism – similar to the trenches and machine guns that Thomas faced on the front lines. Wait … what was Thomas doing on the front lines?
Turns out Thomas had chosen “The Road Not Taken.” Even though he was an anti-nationalist and had two children, Thomas decided that the politics behind the start of the war did not matter as he had a burning desire to protect the beautiful artwork of nature against the foreign German invaders.
Before Frost sent him this poem, Thomas had initially planned to depart with Frost to New Hampshire in America to escape the war and begin a new life farming, writing and reading poetry with his bestie. It’s hard to imagine a more idealistic and pure life than being able to hang out with your best friend for the rest of your life and doing what you both love together, whilst surveying the beautiful rural landscapes.
Although to be honest, while things may have been different back then, going to live with your best friend seems a bit far-fetched. I’d understand the occasional couch surf, but actually moving in with your bestie shows just how close Frost and Thomas were. In fact, later in life, Frost reportedly said of all the people he had met, the only person whom he could truly call a friend was Edward Thomas. Therefore, Thomas’s decision to abandon all this after Frost sent him this poem undoubtedly demonstrates the power four five-line stanzas can have on an individual.
In fact, it was this poem that pushed Thomas off the edge to finally make a choice. After a full year of indecision, Thomas had to juggle the two ideas of whether he should emigrate to America with Frost or fight for his beautiful landscapes against the dreadful invaders.
Usually, when faced with a tough set of options, we will brood over it for perhaps a few minutes, maybe even a few hours, at most a day or a week. Sitting on the fence must have been uncomfortable at first, but excruciating after a full year for Thomas.
Frost, superhero-of-sorts, courageously swooped down and saved him by plucking him off the fence and setting him gently on one side, with his trusty side-kick “The Road Not Taken.” However, in reality, Frost had set his best friend on a metaphorical bear trap, which would cost Thomas’ life almost immediately, by a stray concussive blast wave from a shell, shortly after he was deployed in France.
There could have been no conceivable way for Frost to have foreseen such an event, and I’d imagine he was filled to the brim with regret for quite some time, always questioning himself about what if Thomas hadn’t taken “The Road Not Taken.”
Now, after all that, I bet your perspective of this poem that you thought you knew so well has radically changed.
David Lu is a student currently in his twelfth year at Pinehurst School from the North Shore in Auckland, New Zealand. He is currently taking computer science, literature, maths, physics and chemistry. Although his favourite subject is computer science, he thoroughly enjoys history. His favourite author and book series is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians.