Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken might be one of the most popular poems of all time. If the title doesn’t ring a bell, the last stanza should:
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.
The poem—especially the last two lines—are quoted everywhere from bumper stickers to Skymall posters as a testament to individualism and self-determination. We choose our own path—not the path that others choose for us.
What’s surprising about the poem isn’t its popularity. What’s surprising is how a poem this popular can be this misunderstood.
A close inspection of the poem reveals important nuances that are often missed. Earlier in the poem, Frost writes that the foot traffic had worn down the paths “really about the same.” In the next stanza, he writes that the paths “equally lay in leaves no steps had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was more or less traveled, and the choices were just about equal. The traveler’s hindsight belief that he took the superior, less traveled path is nothing less than self-delusion.
In one of the greatest ironies of all time, a poem that’s partially about self-delusion has generated widespread self-delusion.
I was once part of the problem: I remember selectively quoting the poem in my freshman year English class, only to be put in my place by a professor who suggested (nicely) that I should first bother to read the poem and give it a moment of thought before quoting it with misguided confidence.
I, like many others, hadn’t bothered to read the poem, but chose to play the telephone game anyway. This is how misinformation about the poem—and misinformation in general—spreads.
Instead of bothering to listen, read, or even skim the facts, we rely on sound bites that inevitably distort the content. The resulting distortions, once reported and retweeted, become the truth. Even when these myths are exposed for what they are, they have enormous staying power.
The media exacerbates the problem. One of my favorite examples is from 1996 when scientists announced they found organic molecules of biological origin on a Martian meteorite. Many media outlets were quick to announce these findings as unassailable proof of life on another planet. CBS, for example, reported that scientists had “detected single-cell structures on the meteorite.” CNN’s early reports explained that these structures look “something like maggots,” suggesting that they were the remains of complex organisms.
But there was a slight problem. The evidence wasn’t conclusive. The scientific paper that formed the basis for these headlines was candid about its inherent uncertainties. Its title was “Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001.” Its abstract expressly noted that the features observed on the meteorite “could be fossil remains of past martian biota” but underscored that “inorganic formation is possible.” In other words, the molecules may have been the products—not of Martian bacteria—but of non-biological activity.
These nuances were glossed over in many of the secondhand translations provided to the public by the media. The incident became infamous, prompting Dan Brown to pen a novel, Deception Point, about a conspiracy surrounding extraterrestrial life found on a Martian meteorite.
Read the poem.
And if you don’t read the poem, don’t quote the poem.
In a world of clickbait—where we’re conditioned to hone in on the title and ignore the content—reading the poem is one of the most subversive things you can do.