Letters: How to Interpret a Poem

Readers debate the meaning of “The Road Not Taken.”

Jackie Lay

America's Most Widely Misread Literary Work

The text accompanying a new Atlantic video, animated by Jackie Lay, challenged the prevailing interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as an ode to individualism.

Like “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall” is another Frost poem that can be interpreted many different ways.

My wife and I were both high school English teachers many years ago and used this poem to illustrate reader response methodology. We had opposite interpretations to this poem (she thought it was all about how Frost was endorsing walls and the aphorism “good fences make good neighbors,” while I thought it was all about Frost trying to criticize the tendency of humans to build walls between each other for no good reason), and we would team-teach this poem with our American Lit. classes, arguing for our respective interpretations. We would invite students to join either of us. Later, we would explain why our respective lives had inclined us to read the poem the way we had. Our purpose was to show that there was not one correct interpretation, but that each reader’s response to the poem was derived from their cumulative life experiences.

John Pratt
Medford, Ore.

Several readers responded on Facebook:

Monique Lola wrote, “I do a debate with my seniors on whether this is a positive and uplifting poem, or a negative, regretful poem. They are assigned a side and get super into it. Sometimes it involves yelling. One year a girl was crying. It’s amazing how much evidence they can pull from a relatively short and simple poem. Yay for critical thinking and textual evidence to prove your points!”

Laura Franey replied, “Yet, it’s really neither. It’s about storytelling—the way we narrativize moments in our lives, after they’ve happened, as though they had particular significance, even when they [did] not.”

Siji Sadanandan Kottappady wrote, “The poet’s job is done when the poem’s written. The reader can give his own meaning when he reads.”

Janessa Culliford replied, “I always find it so interesting how there are so many theories for literary analysis, and people get so into them arguing about the ‘right way’ to read or interpret a text! To each their own! I don’t think any perspective should be dismissed outright, least of all the author’s.”

Siji Sadanandan Kottappady replied, “Agreed, Janessa, a poem is more like an abstract painting, and knowing what the creator thought makes it more enjoyable. All I wished to say was that once a poem is born, the poet is the past and the poem lives on to the future.”

Michael Shane Parson replied, “There can be different interpretations, but there are definitely some interpretations which are definitely wrong because they have no basis from the lines of the poem. You have to read the poem as a whole and not just those lines which support your interpretation.”

David Stevenson asked, “Doesn’t the key to the poem reside within the third stanza? That had always been my impression at least:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Laura Franey replied, “Actually the interpretive key appears before (and after) that part. Before it he says he knows he’ll be telling this story about the two roads later, and he knows he’ll claim then that one was less traveled by and that that has made all the difference, but really, he says, the two roads were really equally traveled by. So as someone said above—there.was.no.road.less.traveled.by. They were both the same. He will just look back later and pretend he took one that was more desolate.”

Irina Missiuro wrote, “I remember teaching this poem to college freshmen back in 2002 and being surprised at their insistence on arguing for the traditional interpretation, despite my explanation. People are attached to the meaning that’s easiest to see. Yet, it’s worthwhile to spend some time with the poet’s words to get at his intended point.”

Carole Donovan replied, “What is the traditional interpretation versus your explanation? I see it as all roads leading to the same destination, some rockier than others.”

Kevin O’Donnell replied, “That’s the false interpretation that isn’t justified by the poem itself. One road isn’t rockier than the other—they’re both ‘just as fair’ and time ‘had worn them really about the same.’ The roads don’t lead to the same destination, but you can only travel one, so you pretend that the one you chose was really for a definitive, meaningful reason, and that because you made that conscious choice it ‘has made all the difference.’ It’s about the lies we tell ourselves and others, and how we deceive ourselves when we look back on our lives.

This isn’t to say the poem isn’t open to interpretation—all works of art are. But the interpretation has to be grounded in something, and claiming that the poem is really about two meaningfully different roads is just an impossible claim to make given the text of the poem itself.”

Mark Richardson replied, “I think the key stanza in the entire poem that elucidates the true meaning is: ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh.’ If this poem is truly intended by the poet to be a powerful positive ode to individualism, then why the ‘sigh’? Instead he uses the sigh to show the weariness of acceptance that Janis Joplin talked about in her song when she said, ‘it’s all the same fucking day, man.’”

Michael Kelly Miecielica wrote, “Yes. It is fucking amazing how many people can’t read or understand ‘had worn them really about the same.’ The poem tells you three times both roads are equally traveled. The last line is sarcasm.”

Sally Esther Abigail Brown responded, “And that’s so important. It really bothers me that people are teaching this as though it’s a poignant example of poetry being open to interpretation. Intention matters.”

Patricia Journeay wrote, “Poetry is meant to mean something to the reader that might be different than meant by the author. That is one reason it is poetry and not prose.”

Michael Shane Parson replied, “No. Poetry has rhythm stanzas sometimes a rhyme scheme. That’s what makes it a poem. Prose lack these things.”

Patricia Journeay replied, “What’s poetry to one is not poetry to another. We disagree on the definition. One of my problems is that I disagree with Frost. No two roads are the same, even if they end in the same place. I love to travel and find new ways and new roads!”

Jackie Lay replies:

This is a great discussion about interpretation. While everyone is free to interpret a poem however they’d like, some interpretations will be more correct than others. But more importantly, the joy we get in searching for the best theory and debating the finer details is what makes this such a complex and masterful poem. I was astounded when my English professor walked us through his interpretation and I discovered a deeper meaning to this poem that I’d read so many times before.