This question is challenging because Frost's poetry has become so ingrained in American culture that it is hard to imagine the effect that it had when it was first published. Poems such as "The Road Not Taken" and "Mending Wall" have been repeated ad nauseum by high school English teachers and graduation speakers, so much so that it is sometimes impossible to view the poems with fresh eyes. At the time of its publication, Frost's poetry - inspired by everyday life and using a variety of poetic techniques - was unique and completely American. He created a literary canon in which the struggles and triumphs of real people were elevated to the level of high art; even the most simplistic activity could contain a deeper metaphysical meaning. Ironically, Frost's successful creation of the rural American genre of poetry could be what makes him seem irrelevant in today's society: the sense of American "reality" that he revealed in his poetry has become such a fundamental part of the American sensibilty that Frost's poetry seems almost simplistic. Although people find flaws in Frost's style and choice of topic, he is still worthy of praise as America's unofficial poet laureate for having created a new approach to poetry in America.
In Elizabeth Shepley Sergeantlocates in one of Frost's letters the source for "The Road Not Taken."To Susan Hayes Ward the poet wrote on February 10, 1912:
Throughout the poems “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, and “The Bus” by Leonard Cohen, there are many similarities that take place.
For the large moral meaning which "The Road Not Taken" seems to endorse - go,as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, andit will make "allthe difference"-does not maintainitself when the poem is looked at morecarefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of hischoice, that the two roads were in appearance "really about the same," that they"equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and that choosing onerather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearlythan to say that the road taken had "perhaps the better claim." But in the finalstanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told"with a sigh" and "ages and ages hence." At that imagined time andunspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsivematter into a deliberate one of taking the "less traveled" road:
Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half adozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," andhe characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." Healso said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked togetheralways castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. WhenFrost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failedto understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that"I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them andadvising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort ofadvice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did onoccasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became apopular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun ofthe thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated bythe farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost'swork of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks containsthe following four-line thought:
If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, "The Road Not Taken"was intended to serve as Frost's gentle jest at Thomas's expense. But the poemmight have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who ina different sense might also be considered a "friend": Henry WadsworthLongfellow, whose poem, "My Lost Youth," had provided Frost with the title he chose for his first book.
This portentous account of meeting "another" self (but notencountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) wouldeventually result in a poem quite different from "The Road Not Taken"and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties themoment with Frost's decision to go off at this time to some place where he coulddevote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream forfuture poetic use.
Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a "better" direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. . . . Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid.
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
Longfellow's tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates thesame qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. ElizabethShepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost's dream encounter with his other selfat a crossroads in the woods had a " subterranean connection " withthe whole of "The Road Not Taken," especially with the poem's lastlines:
Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatoryFrost's readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of twofacts of Frost's life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of theDante is thirty-five, "midway on the road of life,"notes Charles Eliot Norton.) The first of these, an event, took place in thewinter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, ageneral observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks inEngland with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.
It is useful to see Frost's projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas'scharacteristic regrets, to note that Frost's poem takes a sly poke atLongfellow's more generalized awe before the notion of what might have happenedhad it not been for the inexorable workings of Providence, and to see "TheRoad Not Taken" as a bravura tossing off of Fitz-James Stephen'smountainous and meteorological scenario. We can also project the poem against apoem by Emily Dickinson that Frost had encountered twenty years earlier in (1891).