English teachers and poetry lovers often bemoan the misinterpretation of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken.’ The ending contains some of the most famous lines of poetry ever: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
The point made by English teachers is that many people take the last two lines as the most important, and interpret the poem as advice to take ‘the road less travelled,’ and to try and be a bit different from everyone else.
But what about the title? The title of the poem is ‘The Road Not Taken,’ so actually it seems Frost intended to highlight the path more travelled, the one he didn’t take. Instead of being about making different and unusual choices, the poem could be about regretting the options you didn’t choose. The narrator is ‘sorry’ he can’t travel both routes, and knows he will regret the choice for a long time: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence.”
Regretting paths not taken is a fundamental part of our culture. “You only regret the things you didn’t do,” the saying goes. But as we noted in our last blog, there are always things you didn’t do. No matter who you are, or what your situation in life, you will invariably make choices that involve not doing something.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton lost the battle to be the Democrat candidate for US President, to Barack Obama. In a speech, she thanked her supporters for endorsing her and told them not to regret her defeat: “When you hear people saying or think to yourself, ‘if only’ or ‘what if’, I say, please, don’t go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward. Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be.”
We all know the old saying, “don’t look back, you’re not going that way!” We all know that dwelling on regret is not healthy. But it’s worth consciously reminding ourselves from time to time. It’s worth thinking about Clinton’s plea to ‘work for what still can be’ - in her case it was for democrat candidate Barack Obama to win the 2008 election. He did win, but even if he hadn’t done there would have been no point regretting the choice of him over Clinton, no point wondering what would have happened if she had run instead.
Choices, once made, cannot be undone. They can only be built upon. It’s important to recognise that regret is natural, and it’s a part of life for everyone whether they show it or not. It isn’t unique to the choice you made and you may have felt a twinge of regret whatever the outcome. It takes time and work to come to terms with some choices, but each one is now part of a past you can’t change, instead leading the way to a future you can.
The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost
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.