Two Roads in the Yellow Wood: Pacing Out Robert Frost's Poem

By Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Poetry, like music, has a flow from one line to another and one stanza to the next. In Robert Frost's classic poem, "The Road Not Taken," we discover an unusual use of timing that not only represents the sentiment of the poem, but also reflects the character of the man himself.

Dare to be Different

The life of Robert Frost is a study of a man who didn't follow the pack; he lived life in his own way. Often at odds with family, friends and neighbors, Frost was known to be cranky and egocentric, something that readers see in his poems. Even his final resting place, with the statement, "I had a lover's quarrel with the world," is a testament to Frost's irascible manner.

Robert Frost was a New Englander, a farmer, a lecturer and a poet with a use for metaphor and a mastery of form that propelled him into fame in spite of his eccentric ways. The rhythm and meter in "The Road Not Taken" is a demonstration of Frost's ability to break with tradition, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

Iambic Tetrameter

In "The Road Not Taken," the four stanzas are five lines long with a rhyming scheme of ABAAB.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, (A)

And sorry I could not travel both (B)

And be one traveler, long I stood (A)

And looked down one as far as I could (A)

To where it bent in the undergrowth; (B)

DSCN5521 Each line, if Frost kept to the common iambic pentameter, would be five "feet" long; however, Frost writes this poem with four "feet" or tetrameter. (Feet or units in poetry contain stressed and unstressed syllables, as in the iambic da-Dum.)

If the first stanza of Frost's poem were broken up into units or feet, it would look like this -

Two roads/ diverged/ in a yel/ low wood, (A)

And sor/ ry I /could not tra/ vel both (B)

And be/ one tra/veler, long /I stood (A)

And looked/ down one/ as far /as I could (A)

To where/ it bent /in the un/dergrowth; (B)

Frost is quoted as saying, "There are only two meters "strict and loose iambic." In the lines of this poem, we see what he means by loose iambic meter."

Meter in English poems is usually one of five types - Iambic, Trochee, Spondee, Anapest, or Dactyl. Iambic consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stress syllable. Trochee is the opposite, beginning with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. In spondee, both syllables are accented. Anapest starts with two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. A dactyl is the opposite of an anapest with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

Loose Iambic

By bolding the stressed syllables in Frost's poem, it is obvious that a loose iambic included some of the other types of meter. For instance, in the first stanza, the meter would look like this -

Two roads/ di verged/ in a yel/ low wood, (A) - spondee/iambic/anapest/iambic

And sor/ ry I could /not tra/ vel both (B) - iambic/anapest/iambic/iambic

And be/ one tra ve/ ler, long /I stood (A) - iambic/dactyl/iambic/iambic

And looked/ down one/ as far /as I could (A) - iambic/iambic/iambic/anapest

To where/ it bent /in the un/der growth; (B) - iambic/iambic/anapest/iambic

Lover's Quarrel

A strict iambic tetrameter would sound like a heart beating - da-Dum, da-Dum, da-Dum, da-Dum - steady and true. In "A Road Not Taken," the beat of the poem, like the beat of a heart in the middle of a major decision in irregular. By beginning with a spondee - Two roads - the reader feels the sudden shock of the speaker of the poem. Throughout the poem, the speaker skips a beat - anapest and dactyl - carrying the reader along with anticipation to the final stanza.

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.

After telling the reader that telling the story would come with a sigh, Frost masterfully creates a sigh in the third line of this stanza when the speaker says, "...and I -- / I took the one less traveled by..." Interestingly, this is all in strict iambic meter; however, Frost returns to a heart skipping beats in the last line, "And that/has made all/the dif/fer ence.

Like a Song

Frost's poems are like finely crafted symphonies. There is tension, discord, harmony, climax and resolve. His poetry does not have the comforting harmonies of a lullaby. Rather, Frost writes poems that trigger the emotions in ways that can sometimes surprise the reader. He writes to pull at the heart, planting seeds of thought that wiggle their way into the conscious until they bloom into epiphanies. The rhythm and meter in "The Road Not Taken," leaves the reader unsettled and questioning.