Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is a well-known and popular English nursery rhyme. And as of late, I’ve enjoyed being quite, quite contrary . . . especially when analyzing popular poems. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is usually seen through rose-colored glasses, but come on, did you really think I’d cheat you with that?
Anyway, here’s my analysis:
The phrase “the grass I always greener on the other side” comes to mind when reflecting upon Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Or how about a new coined phrase, “poetry will drive you mad”? Frost’s poem is an elegy to humanity’s constant love affair with regret.

The theme of The Road Not Taken is that choices we make early in life can create future disappointment or regret. Frost develops his theme of regret through the use of an extended metaphor illustrating “two roads” (1) going in different ways in a “yellow wood” (1). He first observes the two roads and decides to embark upon the one he considers “the better claim” because it is “grassy and wanted wear” (8). In stanza three, he reconsiders his choice by whimsically sharing that the other road could be explored another day. However, in line fourteen the opportunity to return to the “road not taken” is preempted by the initial choice he made. In other words, he is unable to “ever come back” (15).

In the final stanza, the poet laments that he will be sharing this life decision “with a sigh”. The deliberate word choice “sigh” indicates that he is passively regretting with sadness the choice he made. Ironically, the eponymous title refers not to the road he did venture down, but to the road he had not taken and how it has “made all the difference” (20). And this line is the most maddening of all: “made all the difference”.

Made all the difference how, Robert?a positive difference? Negative? What?  A veiled answer is given: though the poet displays regret, he is not necessarily disappointed with his choices. Lines eighteen and nineteen spotlight a pregnant pause punctuated with a hesitant hyphen (“and I – I took the one less traveled by”), which further underscores this great regret and disappointment. One can almost imagine him slapping himself with a proverbial face-palm as he wonders about all of the lost possibilities taunting him like a mirage in the desert of human limitations.
Overall, the poet reveals that regret and disappointment, which are both human experiences, do not have to occur simultaneously when making life choices.
And there you have it!


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