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Memes and Yellow Leaves

I first encountered Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in elementary school, when I memorized and performed it for the school assembly. The way my teachers explained it to me back then, I thought Robert Frost seemed like an artsy sort of motivational speaker—a popularized self-help poet. The message was essentially this: Go after your dreams, even if its difficult. Take the road less traveled. I have often heard “The Road Not Taken” referenced in ways that, paraphrased, encourage people to “take the higher road” or “make your own way.” I think of our meme-saturated social media that pulls choice lines from great literary works and turns them into the equivalent of the terrified kitten, paws clinging to a tree branch—“Hang in there, baby!”—and I see that popular attention to the poem largely rests in the last two lines: I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference. Given a closer (and more comprehensive) reading, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” does little to satisfy a broad cultural impulse toward the moral of the story or any simplistic resolution to make us feel better about ourselves and our choices.

Frost sets up the tension between these two roads from the very first line. He expresses his desire to walk both paths. He goes back and forth in his evaluation of the roads—several times. He looks down one, then takes the other, then stops to think about both of them. One of the paths has the “better claim” because it is “grassy and want[ing] wear”; yet in the very next two lines, Frost says that when he really ponders about it, they are worn “really about the same.” Later he says that they “equally lay” in the leaves and tells himself that he will come back to the other path “another day,” indicating that he sees these as equally valid options. Of course, he waffles yet again and says that he doubts he’ll ever return to this fork in the road. Why this back and forth? Frost is saying less about which road is better and more about the inner conflict itself—or about what comes after the inner conflict has passed.

The “yellow wood” where Frost has encountered these paths brings to mind the image of leaves changing in the autumn months and connotes a degree of weariness in life or, at the very least, aging and perhaps coming death.  The yellow leaves become even more important later in the poem, in lines 11 and 12: And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. The roads, he writes, lay in the leaves. In reality, if leaves have fallen across a road, it is the leaves that are strewn across the road. In other words, between leaves and a road, the road would be the predecessor—the least transient or changing of the two, the thing that was there before the leaves. Instead, Frost reverses this perception by placing the paths in the leaves, seeming to make the yellow leaves more important than the roads themselves. The fact that he does not see the leaves as being (yet) “trodden black” indicates that the perceived death or ending has not yet come. The leaves still hold their color, but there is a strong awareness of the decay of life and the passing of seasons. The perspective (a different ordering of priorities) brought on with age becomes stronger than the pressure of making the right decision.

In the final stanza, Frost takes us back to the beginning—to the fork in the road: I shall be telling this with a sigh  / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference. As he stands at the fork in the road this time, though, there is one road in mind and it is the  “less traveled” one. But how could one of the roads be less traveled if, before, they were both worn “about the same”? The key here is in the first two lines of the concluding stanza. He speaks of this less travelled road “with a sigh” and from the perspective of a distant future. The poet is thus looking back on what seemed at the time to be a very important decision and from this perspective all the inner conflict has been resolved. The decision itself has diminished in its importance.

There is no moral to the story — and this is, perhaps, the key message of “The Road Not Taken.” Frost doesn’t find resolution within the poem. As important as any given decision may be,  he doesn’t try to tell us which road was better. Instead, he tells us that life will always be racked with doubts and regrets and when we are aging and approaching death, we will see how little all of those decisions really mattered. I do not mean to say that Frost is telling us that nothing matters—rather that the crossroad decisions matter less than the way live along the way and the beauty we allow to overpower our anxiety. Perhaps the road “less travelled” is the one that teaches us the freedom of bypassing all our deliberations by understanding that the roads themselves are less important than the yellow woods surrounding them—the leaves, the beauty around us, and the passing of time.

Afterword: If Robert Frost was asked to create a meme with a more accurate representation of  his poem, it might look like this:


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