Thursday, September 3, 2015

John Green & The Road Less Traveled

An Open Letter to John Green.

Dear John Green,

First, big fan! I've been watching Vlogbrothers and Crash Course for several years now, Vlogbrothers for longer obviously. I love the things you and Hank do, but more than anything I love this video.

Let me explain...

I like Robert Frost. His poetry is wonderful, deep, and full of interesting discussions. My favorite is Out, Out. But I have to tell you, it really frustrates me when people misinterpret and misread The Road Not Taken. This happens most often in church and in the English classes I teach at school.

So, thank you for doing your part in correcting this rampant problem.

Best Wishes,

Mr. Allen

Now, lets get this poem on the screen and dig in.

                         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
               (5)     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
              (10)   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,
             (15)    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,
             (20)    And that has made all the difference.

I understand and totally subscribe to the idea that people can read poetry and glean any message that is meaningful to them, but let me explain to you how I interpret this poem.

Many people misinterpret this poem by saying that (much like John Green in the video was saying) that by taking the "road less traveled" your life will be better or meaningful. It happens in church all the time. People like to interpret this poem saying that if you follow the straight and narrow you will eventually reach heaven because you took the "road less traveled by." That is a nice message and all, but unfortunately that is not what Frost was getting at.

So we have the speaker, he is walking through the woods, he comes to a fork in the road, he looks down both paths. One path is well worn, and the other is "grassy and wanted wear." But then look at lines 9 & 10: "Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same," Frost contradicts himself. One road isn't better than the other. One isn't less worn, they are pretty much the same. So does it really matter if you choose one path over the other? Let's keep reading.

In line 11, Frost uses the word "equally" to once again discuss how these two paths are the same. Then he says that "[he] kept the first for another day!" He'll just come back and travel the other road some other time. Sounds good. But, oh, wait, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back." So you're not going to come back? Well then why did you say you would. You contradicted yourself again. NOT COOL ROBERT FROST!

So then we get to the final stanza. Where the speaker envisions himself in the future, detailing to generations of his offspring how he took the path that was "less traveled" and "that has made all the difference." That's the end right? Poem over? Not so fast. The problem is that it didn't make all the difference. The speaker cannot know that his path was any better than the other because

  1. the paths were "worn [...] about the same." and
  2. he never took the other path, "I doubted if I should ever come back," so how can he know that the path he took made all the difference.
This is how I interpret this poem. If we read closely we find contradictions. I love to use this poem to teach Deconstruction when we study Critical Lenses in AP Literature and Composition.

Close reading is the best!


  1. I too have heard this poem over and over throughout my life, especially in church. Growing up, this poem was one of my favorites. To me I think that the path less traveled is indeed, less traveled, but equally worn, therefore, the path would be evidently more difficult. This poem symbolizes life and although it is not directly stated that Frost understands the other path, I believe he was referencing the easier less ambitious path of life, which he has seen others take. So when the speaker says the path he took "Has made all the difference" I think, based on the meaning behind the poem, that he does indeed understand the difference between the two roads. -Wyatt

  2. But Frost says in lines 9 & 10: "Though as for the passing there / Had worn them really about the same." This is the point I'm trying to make that people are misinterpreting this poem, and even worse, Frost is contradicting himself. The path less traveled isn't more difficult, it is the same as the path traveled; it just get's picked less often.

    As John Green says in the video, this poem got a man killed. NOT COOL, ROBERT FROST!