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RESOURCE: The Road Not Taken - GRADE 10-12

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.



COMMENTARY:

This poem explores the economic concepts of opportunity costs and sunk costs through the contemplation of what it means to decide between two walking paths. This choice is symbolic of all choices since, in a world where resources (including time) are scarce, the need for choice is inevitable, and all choices imply sacrifice. Opportunity costs are implied with the both the title of the poem - "The Road Not Taken" and the opening lines - "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler".


Having ostensibly chosen the second road the author then refers to sunk costs when he infers that "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back" - that is to say, the author doubts he can ever undo taking the second path once he has set out on it. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the author describes being in a 'yellow wood' - implying that it is autumn - perhaps the autumn of his life - and therefore that the time to pursue alternatives may be even more limited.


Since Robert Frost spent much of his life on the East Coast of the United States, by stating ‘yellow wood’ it is also implied that the path before him is filled mostly with alder or birch trees – both of which turn bright yellow in fall, distinguishing them from maple leaves, which by contrast turn red and orange. Both birches and alders are “pioneer species,” the first trees to come back after a forest has been felled by logging or fires. An inveterate New England farmer and woodsman, Robert Frost would have known these woods were “new”—full of trees that had grown after older ones had been cut down. One forest has replaced another, just as—in the poem—one choice will necessarily supplant another. The yellow leaves also evoke a sense of transience; one season will soon give way to another - and anything transient is even more limited - heightening the sense of urgency and finality of our lost opportunities. Source.


The poem ends with the remark, 'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.' This statement is an affirmation that the author believes he had correctly evaluated the past opportunity costs of both paths before him, and so had indeed successfully made the optimal choice. Such a positive outcome is never guaranteed ex ante, but no doubt satisfying to apprehend ex post.

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