The Road Not Taken Analysis Cover

Why Is “The Road Not Taken” One of the Most Famous Poems of All Time?

I’m sure you recognize this fragment:

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.

It’s from The Road Not Taken, written by Robert Frost in 1916, one of the most popular poems of all time. People read, talk about, and teach it in schools all around the world to this day. But in order to survive for over 100 years, the poem couldn’t just be popular.

It also needed enemies.

A Pitting Competition

There’s a saying that the best art divides the audience. Sure enough, much like the two roads in the woods, Frost’s poem offers vastly diverging interpretations of life.

One is that you should always take the less traveled path, make your own choices, and be an independent thinker. The other is that even trying to do so is nonsense. Maybe the narrator sighs not because he’s content to take an untrodden path, but because he regrets he can take only one, when, in reality, the choice doesn’t matter and both end up in the same place.

Whether it was a planned move on Frost’s end or just one of the many accidental fires started by humanity, the ambiguity was brilliant. The poem created two completely opposite camps, the freedom fighters and the nihilists, and pitted them against one another.

But there’s even more to the story.

Life in Three Words

Throughout his career, Frost received 40 honorary degrees, 31 Nobel Prize nominations, 4 Pulitzer Prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal. Clearly, the man had a lot to say. This clever line is now one of the most popular quotes on Goodreads:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
— Robert Frost

Again, readers are forced to self-select into two camps: those, who feel some sense of relief and take it as a case for optimism, and those, who are turned off by this bland way of looking at the world.

But there’s something beyond that: It’s impossible to argue with this statement. It’s true. Period. With or without you, life goes on. Think about it. It’s all there. The short highs of your success. The long troughs of failure. The laughs and cries, love and grief, people and the weather. Even death. Its inevitability. Our helplessness in the face of the insignificance of our own existence.

It’s so depressing, so surrendering, that one can’t help but admire it. It’s beautiful. Or, you can react with rage and hate it to the core. Like author Michael Lewis once overheard in random conversation in a bar, somewhere in Washington, D.C.:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

There’s nothing more divisive than the truth.

Finding the Kernel

There are many ways to make points that ring like truths that are hard to debate. Like stating an actual fact, as in the quote. Or picking an everyday situation literally everyone can relate to, like the poem — we’ve all had to choose between two options before. You could also be vague, obscure, or posit something absurd, or unverifiable.

But no matter how small or how hard to find, it’s this kernel of universal truth that makes Frost’s poems great art. Here’s the thing, though: There are two camps of everything. More, even. Five, twenty, ten thousand. And truth splits them all, right down the middle. This phenomenon extends not just beyond poetry to all art, but to all of life. Politics, family, relationships, business, school, work, health, you name it, whoever vows the world with the most elemental, poignant insight will take center stage.

And that’s why creating, succeeding — sometimes just living — is hard. Because the world pushes you to deliver your most honest, vulnerable self. All the time. Maybe that’s why people hate poetry. You have to stare at it all, the beauty and the trauma, until you can see through it. But looking is too painful, too overwhelming, or too difficult, so most people turn their eyes away too early.

And then they quote the people who didn’t.

A Lesson About Art To Remember

Besides the fact that art is hard, there’s another big lesson here. No matter how hard they worked to share it, the best art is never about the artist.

The best art is always about you.

It’s you and your version of the truth that make art, business, and life, really, things worth talking about, worth debating, worth fighting for. That’s the kicker, I think. Without you, it’d all amount to nothing. Like that fork in the woods, before whoever stands there chooses a road.

Even if you’re not an artist, you’re part of it all. You split the audience too. You’re a great work of art. And we really need you here. So remember, no matter how many people hate you, or love you, or just don’t care: Life goes on.